Attorneys who represented landowners in Santee Cooper case sought $88M, got $10.3M

The St. Stephen Powerhouse opened in 1985 in northern Berkeley County, on Lake Moultrie at the Rediversion Canal. After it opened, property owners downstream along the Santee River sued when their land was flooded, and they eventually won.

Lawyers representing several landowners who fought Santee Cooper over flooding caused by a hydroelectric plant that went into operation in 1985 north of St. Stephen will get a fraction of the $88 million they sought in fees and costs, a federal judge has ruled.

Lead attorney J. Edward Bell of Georgetown wanted 40 percent of the $219.4 million awarded to plaintiffs from different cases in the long-running legal battle that followed the state-owned utility's effort to reduce silting in Charleston Harbor. Instead, attorneys will get $10.3 million for their efforts.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy called 40 percent "unreasonable" and based his March 30 award on the case's longevity and difficulty, hours worked, attorney experience, contingency fees, beneficial results and customary legal fees for similar services.

Bell did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Santee Cooper officials were pleased with Duffy's reasoning. They have no plans to appeal.

"We think this is a fair decision," utility spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. "We are pleased that the process is over."

About 60 waterfront properties on 40,000 acres in Berkeley, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties were flooded because of the new power plant and the new canal that diverted water off Lake Moultrie into the Santee River.

The canal was built to reduce the amount of water dumped into the Cooper River at the Pinopolis Dam near Moncks Corner, because it was determined that it contributed to silt build-up in Charleston Harbor.

In 2009, Duffy awarded a group of affected property owners, including a Mount Pleasant man and two sisters from Charleston, $55.2 million plus 8 percent interest, compounded each year since 1985. Other landowners won other settlements.

To minimize the financial burden on customers, Santee Cooper floated bonds to help pay for the settlements and was waiting on the latest decision before seeking reimbursement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Several years ago, a judge ruled that the Corps of Engineers, which built the power plant on the Rediversion Canal in northern Berkeley County, had to reimburse Santee Cooper for any lawsuit payments.

So, in the end, the federal government will foot the bill.