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Santee Cooper lawsuit over failed SC nuclear project booted back to state court

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NextEra's bid to buy Santee Cooper seems to settle all family business: It would retire the state-owned utility’s debt, resolve a lawsuit over charges for those unfinished nuclear plants, refund 1.7 million customers the cash they previously dropped into that money pit … and give the state $615 million. File/Staff

A class-action lawsuit filed against Santee Cooper over the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project was booted back to state court Tuesday, setting up a trial that could swing the fortunes of the utility.

U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten declined to take over the highly consequential case, which involves Santee Cooper, South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives, more than 2 million electric customers and Dominion Energy, the new owner of South Carolina Electric & Gas.

The pending case was filed against Santee Cooper on behalf of the utility's direct customers and the members of South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives more than two years ago. 

It seeks to stop Santee Cooper, the minority owner of the abandoned nuclear project, from charging its ratepayers and the co-op members billions of dollars for the unfinished reactors in Fairfield County.

A trial was previously set to begin in state court in Greenville County in February.

But that plan was delayed last month after Dominion Energy, which inherited SCE&G's share of the nuclear project, tried to move the lawsuit into federal court. 

That legal maneuver was shot down Tuesday.

Wooten's court order ensures the case will be decided in state court, where it will be overseen by Jean Toal, a former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice.

It's unclear how quickly a new trial can be scheduled now. 

But the case will be closely watched by state lawmakers, who are trying to decide whether the state should sell Santee Cooper this year.

If Santee Cooper loses the class-action lawsuit, it could be barred from charging customers for the $3.6 billion it currently owes for the abandoned nuclear project.

That would drastically harm the utility's finances, since it has no other place to turn to for money.

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

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