IT SEEMS like we learn more every week about how Santee Cooper tried to prod a reluctant SCE&G to stem the bleeding at their deteriorating nuclear construction project — and how SCE&G refused to act.
The steady trickle of critical Santee Cooper emails got so bad that I started to feel uncomfortable about how one-sided the coverage seemed.
Of course, Santee Cooper, as a state agency, had no choice but to release any correspondence that journalists knew enough to ask for. And of course, SCE&G always had the option of responding.
Earlier this month, SCE&G’s parent, SCANA Corp., exercised that option, with a blistering letter that displays a remarkable level of contempt for its nuclear partner.
The intended take-away: Santee Cooper is being dishonest. We worked at least as hard as it did to control costs at the two nuclear reactors we were building at the V.C. Summer facility. Santee Cooper bears a lot more responsibility for the failure than it’s letting on. And for the secrecy. And frankly, Santee Cooper made it more difficult than it should have been to get the project back on track.
The actual take-away: a not-so-successful attempt at damage control for a corporation whose future may depend on convincing lawmakers that it was managing the project responsibly — and not simply allowing costs to spin out of control so it could collect higher profits.
The five-page letter was written to Santee Cooper’s general counsel, but its intended audience clearly was much larger: Gov. Henry McMaster, legislators and the public. In it, SCANA general counsel Jim Stuckey charged that Santee Cooper sent the governor an overview of the project last month that was “materially misleading, and continues a pattern of similar misleading emails and correspondence from Santee Cooper over several years.”
SCE&G accuses its partner of sending ‘misleading emails’ and congratulates itself for ‘tremendous restraint’ in not responding.
To underscore the point — and perhaps explain all those emails from Santee Cooper’s Lonnie Carter that SCANA’s Kevin Marsh never answered — Mr. Stuckey added that SCE&G had “shown tremendous restraint in not attempting to answer every mischaracterization that Santee Cooper has made in its letters and emails over the past several years.”
Many examples are either petty or misleading. He complains, for instance, that Santee Cooper officials were late and unprepared for a meeting — apparently a tat for an earlier Santee Cooper tit about SCE&G officials being unprepared for a meeting.
One apparently legitimate complaint: Santee Cooper “inadvertently” gave legislators a one-page internal memo that described what Santee Cooper said were SCE&G’s concerns about what information the Columbia utility must share with stockholders. Legislators asked SCE&G officials about the memo and got angry when they got only blank stares, and “no one from Santee Cooper stepped forward during the hearing to explain” that SCE&G officials had never seen the memo.
It was was one of the few indications that Santee Cooper at least considered acting responsibly instead of hiding important information from the public.
Santee Cooper’s theme since the utilities abandoned the project has been that as the minority stakeholder, it had practically no control over what happened. But Mr. Stuckey writes that Santee Cooper played an “informed active role … in all aspects” of the construction project, and “SCE&G solicited and considered Santee Cooper’s input on every significant decision made.” That doesn’t come close to saying Santee Cooper was an equal partner, and it clearly wasn’t.
He charges that it was misleading for Santee Cooper to say SCANA had more than 100 employees on site while it had just three, because the 100 were paid by both utilities, and SCANA had urged Santee Cooper to “add additional Santee Cooper personnel to the project.” That seems an odd request since presumably Santee Cooper would have paid those additional personnel — while also helping to pay those 100 who answered to SCANA.
The letter says that contrary to the impressios you’d get from Mr. Carter’s foot-dragging complaints, SCE&G put “incredible effort and legal costs” into paving the way for the damning Bechtel audit that Santee Cooper kept nagging it about. The letter says that contrary to a “false impression (that) has now taken root,” Santee Cooper agreed that the Bechtel report was “privileged and confidential.”
It says that “the majority of the concerns” in the report had already been addressed by the time it was issued. Of course, the letter is silent on the most important problem identified in the report: SCE&G’s failure to make sure contractors were doing their jobs.
This was a disaster with no heroes.
The letter also says that efforts to address other concerns were “unnecessarily complicated by Santee Cooper’s intimation that it would publicly disclose the Bechtel Report if SCE&G did not acquiesce to Santee Cooper’s demands to add more personnel and hire an outside engineer.”
That clearly is a sore point for SCANA, but to me it was was one of the few indications that Santee Cooper at least considered acting like a responsible state agency instead of continuing to hide important information from the public.
Ultimately, though, Santee Cooper kept quiet, never warning ratepayers or legislators or even state regulators that the problems were much deeper than anyone was letting on.
And ultimately, SCANA’s long-awaited response to Santee Cooper’s quiet criticisms tells us nothing of substance, but merely reminds us of what we already knew: This was a disaster with no heroes.
Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.