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Judge approves Santee Cooper ratepayer settlement over failed VC Summer nuclear project

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Santee Cooper, South Carolina's state-run utility, got a judge's approval for a legal settlement over its failed South Carolina nuclear project. File/Staff

COLUMBIA — Santee Cooper on Monday received final approval for a $520 million legal settlement with its customers over its failure to complete an expansion of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Fairfield County.

The deal, approved by former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, ends a standoff over how much customers must pay for that unfinished power plant, a project abandoned by Santee Cooper in July 2017 after years of escalating costs and construction delays.

The settlement also greatly diminishes the chance Santee Cooper could be sold by lawmakers after the $9 billion nuclear debacle — one of the greatest business failures in state history. 

It puts refunds into the pockets of customers who have paid higher power bills for the V.C. Summer project, as well as substantial fees for the attorneys who argued the case against the project's owners.

Toal said it was the most complex litigation she has handled in 52 years of practicing law.

“We managed to take an extremely complex set of circumstances and form a settlement that I have been told many times represents something quite astounding and unique," Toal said.

The deal requires Santee Cooper freeze its electric rates for four years and pay $200 million to its ratepayers, including members of South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives who purchase the utility's power indirectly.

The rate freeze, the plaintiff attorneys argued, could be worth up to $510 million to Santee Cooper's customers on its own. 

Another $320 million would be supplied by Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based company that last year purchased S.C. Electric & Gas — Santee Cooper's partner on the nuclear project.

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"We are glad to be at this point in the settlement process and appreciate the court’s swift decision," said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper's spokeswoman. "This settlement is good for our customers, and Santee Cooper is taking the steps necessary to move forward." 

The attorneys who brought the lawsuit against Santee Cooper and SCE&G are set to earn about $78 million in fees from the case. That will be taken out of of the $520 million settlement, leaving about $442 million for customers.

Gibson Solomons, one of those attorneys, told Toal on Monday the law firms working this case spent long hours, including some 16-hour days, researching the case and negotiating with attorneys from Santee Cooper and SCE&G.

The arrangement is similar to a $180 million settlement reached by Dominion Energy with SCE&G's ratepayers last year. That lawsuit was brought by the same attorneys, who earned $54 million in fees for their work on that case.

SCE&G's attorneys received the first batch of those refunds in the form of a check.

Dominion is involved in Monday's settlement because SCE&G and Santee Cooper were co-owners of the abandoned nuclear project. And both companies had filed separate claims against one another over the unfinished reactors. 

The settlement will also resolve all of those lingering legal disputes between the two utilities, which spent more than $9 billion on the nuclear project before calling off the venture.

The project's surprise collapse sparked dozens of lawsuits and a federal criminal investigation that is expected to lead to a guilty plea by one of SCE&G's top executives.

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

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