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Goose Creek sues Santee Cooper over the creation of city-run electric utility

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The city of Goose Creek filed a lawsuit against Santee Cooper this week setting up a battle over who can supply power to Century Aluminum's Mount Holly plant in Berkeley County. File/Staff

Goose Creek filed a lawsuit against Santee Cooper on Tuesday arguing the state-run power provider is trying to "delay" and "thwart" the city's effort to expand into the electricity business.

The complaint follows a special referendum last year in which 1,177 residents voted to form a municipal utility to serve a single customer: Century Aluminum.

Santee Cooper, which is based in Moncks Corner, is a power supplier to Century's Mount Holly plant off U.S. Highway 52. 

But, in recent years, Century — the country's largest aluminum smelting company — has waged a campaign to end its relationship with Santee Cooper and buy all of its electricity from another undisclosed provider.

The aluminum maker previously tried to accomplish that goal by lobbying state lawmakers and by suing Santee Cooper in federal court. But each time, the company failed to break free of Santee Cooper and was forced to continue buying power from the state-run utility. 

That's why Century partnered with Goose Creek leaders last year to come up with a new strategy of forming a city-run utility to supply the Berkeley County smelter. 

The aluminum plant is just outside the city limits. So Century struck a deal it believed would benefit both sides. 

Goose Creek would form the utility to supply the smelter with power purchased off the grid, and, in return, the company would allow the city to annex its property. 

That move would generate more than $1 million in additional tax revenue for Goose Creek, according to city leaders. Century also has agreed to cover the cost of any litigation with Santee Cooper. 

“The people of Goose Creek have spoken, and now we are just trying to get the utility up and running,” Mayor Greg Habib said in a written statement. 

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Santee Cooper has maintained it has a legal right to supply power to Century's property. The state-run utility also controls the transmission lines that Goose Creek would need serve the aluminum smelter.

In its lawsuit, the city argues Santee Cooper dose not have an "exclusive" right to serve the Mount Holly plant. It also pointed out that Santee Cooper's contract with Century is up in December. 

"Santee Cooper has continued its efforts to thwart, impede, and prevent the city from exercising its right to serve customers with electricity," according to the complaint. 

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the utility isn't opposed to Goose Creek setting up its own electric utility. The state-run power provider has a problem with the city's plan to serve Century. She pointed out that a similar legal argument the Chicago-based company made in 2017 didn't hold up in federal court. 

"It's unfortunate that Santee Cooper is put in this position again," she said. 

Goose Creek also said that its request to move electricity over to the existing transmission system was rejected by Santee Cooper.

According to the lawsuit, the city submitted an application to use the lines in February and filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Santee Cooper turned down the request in March. 

"It is clear," the city's lawyers wrote, "that Santee Cooper intends to challenge the city’s right to serve electric utility customers at every turn." 

It will now be up to a judge in Berkeley County to decide who gets to power the lines at Century Aluminum. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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