COLUMBIA — Santee Cooper Chief Executive Lonnie Carter first raised concerns about the construction of two nuclear reactors in South Carolina in 2013 — roughly a year after construction began at the V.C. Summer site in Fairfield County.  

During another drawn-out special legislative hearing Tuesday, members of the South Carolina House questioned Carter about whether the $9 billion nuclear project should have been abandoned long before July.

Armed with letters and emails sent by the public utility's CEO, state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, asked Carter about several warnings he raised as the nuclear project marched forward and South Carolina electric customers continued to pay billions of dollars for the unfinished reactors. 

“I’m trying to establish a timeline of when people started to realize there was a problem," said McCoy, chairman of a special House committee.

McCoy asked Carter about a letter he sent to SCANA Chief Executive Kevin Marsh in August 2013, nearly four years before the partnering utilities pulled the plug on the project.

That letter laid out serious problems with the way the huge steel building blocks for the reactors were being constructed. It also questioned whether Westinghouse and other contractors were putting the “project’s future in danger.”

The letter has become only the most recent piece of evidence to emerge as state lawmakers, utility regulators and state and federal law enforcement agents continue to investigate the collapse of the energy project that saddled South Carolina with a financial crisis.

Along with other documents, the 2013 letter highlights how early in the process that SCANA and Santee Cooper were aware of serious flaws with the construction effort that was supposed to usher in a new age of nuclear power.

That timeline could become extremely important as lawsuits filed by electric customers and SCANA investors head to court. 

McCoy also raised questions about an email sent by Carter to SCANA’s president in November 2016.

In that message, Carter informed the leaders of investor-owned SCANA that the electric cooperatives in South Carolina had found out about a once-secret audit that informed the partnering utilities of serious construction failures at V.C. Summer. That report was finished in February 2016.  

“We’re backed into a corner on this,” Carter told Marsh, who became SCANA's CEO in late 2011.

According to earlier testimony, SCANA reportedly withheld the audit from state regulators as they repeatedly asked for the document. 

Carter warned SCANA’s leader in the 2016 email that it would be difficult to keep the audit private for much longer with Santee Cooper’s largest customers — the electric cooperatives — asking about it.

“Not releasing this information will likely bring formal requests that will be an untenable position for both our companies,” Carter told Marsh.

The audit, which found waste and mismanagement, remained private until Gov. Henry McMaster's office released it earlier this year.

House leaders said the correspondence between the utility partners provided more evidence that SCANA's primary goal was to keep any failures at V.C. Summer private in order to continue construction.

“It shows SCANA put the pressure on,” McCoy said.

Throughout Carter's hours-long testimony, he repeatedly emphasized to lawmakers that Santee Cooper didn't have primary oversight of the project. That role was designated to SCANA, which owned 55 percent of the project, he said. 

Carter, who has announced his retirement from Santee Cooper, told House members the state-run utility didn't have many "big levers to pull" to get SCANA or Westinghouse to do what they wanted. Santee Cooper, which owned 45 percent of the project, had signed away much of their authority to SCANA as work began. 

Westinghouse never followed any of the construction schedules they produced, Carter said, and the contractor wasn't transparent through the decade-long effort to construct the two reactors. 

As an example, Carter told lawmakers he had no idea that Westinghouse and SCANA had agreed to disregard the state's engineering laws that require licensed professionals to sign off on blueprints used for construction. That fact was revealed in an investigation by The Post and Courier last month. 

"I shouldn't have learned about that in the newspaper," Carter told lawmakers.

As the hearing stretched on, Carter continually defended his decision and that of Santee Cooper's board to continue to push forward with construction. Even with incessant schedule delays and failed promises by Westinghouse, Carter argued Santee Cooper acted properly.

But Carter did relent when Rep. Sylleste Davis, R-Moncks Corner, asked if Santee Cooper would have shut down the project earlier had Westinghouse been more forthcoming with information. It was a possibility, he said.  

"We were definitely misled," he said. 

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