COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's top prosecutor on Friday told state regulators he wants to take part in a case that will determine whether a utility company can continue to bill customers for a failed multibillion dollar nuclear project, a move that comes amid ongoing state and federal investigations into the debacle.
Attorney General Alan Wilson petitioned for status as an intervenor in the case before the Public Service Commission over whether South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. can continue to charge its customers for the scuttled V.C. Summer project.
Wilson called it his sworn duty to "seek to protect the rights" of South Carolina citizens, including SCE&G's more than 700,000 ratepayers. But he also wrote that he hadn't yet made up his mind on the issue.
Costs associated with the abandoned project currently account for 18 percent of SCE&G customers' bills. The Office of Regulatory Staff - the state agency that represents the public interest in utility cases - has asked state regulators to force SCE&G to stop billing customers for the failure.
Environmental groups have also sought to intervene in the case, with more petitions expected. The Public Service Commission voted Thursday to appoint a special officer to arrange a hearing on the request — essentially sending the arguments to regulatory court. Objections to the commission's eventual decision could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
SCE&G wants the request dismissed. Executives say halting the payments would reduce the company's annual revenues by more than $445 million. Jimmy Addison, chief financial officer for SCANA, SCE&G's parent company, said Thursday the filing of the request alone made the company's stock drop significantly. In the past two months, SCANA's stock has dropped by nearly 30 percent.
Also Friday, board members of South Carolina's state-owned utility, SCE&G's partner in the project, met to discuss appointing an interim CEO, but made no decision. The human resources panel of Santee Cooper's board took no action on a temporary replacement for Lonnie Carter, who announced his impending retirement last month after 35 years with the utility — the last 13 at the helm. He remains the only executive involved with the scuttled project to leave.
The public utility and SCE&G abandoned construction July 31 after jointly spending nearly $10 billion and charging customers more than $2 billion in interest fees since 2009. The debacle has launched multiple state and federal investigations and more than a half dozen lawsuits.
Gov. Henry McMaster backs attorney Steve Hamm, the current interim director of the state ethics agency, for the interim CEO job. Hamm previously headed the consumer advocate's office.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes called Hamm an "agent of change" who will do what's best for customers.
While Santee Cooper's board hires the utility's CEO, the governor appoints all of Santee Cooper's board members.
The Republican governor told The Associated Press earlier this week he's still pushing to revive the abandoned reactors. He hopes to find a buyer willing to complete one or both reactors — but if he can't, he wants consumers to get their money back.
Utility executives have said they've seen no credible buyout offer.
But the governor said he's still negotiating with companies and individuals to buy some or all of the state-owned utility, as well as SCE&G's 55-percent stake in the nuclear project.
McMaster wants to hear from all interested buyers by Sunday, so the "next round of negotiations will be with serious investors," Symmes said Friday. That list will not be made public, he said.
McMaster has set no deadline for negotiations. Any potential sales deal involving Santee Cooper would require legislative approval.
The scuttled expansion of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station accounts for half of Santee Cooper's total debt of $8 billion.
The project was years behind schedule and several billion over its initial price tag of $11 billion when Westinghouse, the lead contractor that owns the reactors' design, declared bankruptcy in March. Utility executives said a post-bankruptcy analysis — using data they previously had no access to — determined that completing the project would actually exceed $20 billion. Lawmakers accuse SCE&G of hiding details that could have resulted in regulators denying rate request hikes years ago.
Associated Press writer Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/