COLUMBIA — Santee Cooper wants to weigh in before South Carolina Electric & Gas settles a lawsuit with its customers over the utilities' failed nuclear project, arguing a rushed deal could harm the state-run power company and its ratepayers.
Attorneys for Santee Cooper, which held a minority interest in the V.C. Summer reactor project, filed a motion in court Wednesday that could disrupt a proposed legal settlement between SCE&G and several law firms that represent the utility's customers in ongoing class-action lawsuits.
That settlement, if approved, would allow SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA Corp., to do away with the risky litigation and help seal Dominion Energy’s proposed takeover of the Cayce-based company.
It would also lock customers into paying another $2.3 billion for the failed nuclear project over the next two decades.
In return, the law firms that pushed the class-action lawsuit would pocket a portion of the settlement, which requires the utility to turn over $115 million that was previously set aside for the company’s executives and the proceeds from the sale of several properties, including a plantation near Georgetown and an office in downtown Charleston.
Santee Cooper said SCE&G and the law firms involved in the case “attempted to stage a hurried settlement.”
"It is typical, once a class action is settled and submitted for court review, that adversaries unite in support of the class action settlement," wrote Rush Smith, Santee Cooper's attorney with Nelson Mullins. "This case, however, warrants special attention, given the public interest in its subject matter."
SCANA suggested in a statement Wednesday that it would oppose Santee Cooper's request to review the proposed settlement. "We believe its motion to intervene lacks merit, and we will be responding in court at the appropriate time," said Eric Boomhower, SCANA's spokesperson. "Our focus continues to be moving forward with the pending combination with Dominion Energy."
Dominion did not respond to a request for comment. But Pete Strom, the lead counsel in the class-action lawsuit, said Santee Cooper should have intervened in the case months ago if it wanted to be involved.
"All they are doing now is trying to hold up SCE&G customers from getting relief," Strom said. "If the Santee Board thinks it's going to get any part of the SCE&G customers' settlement, they have a fight on their hands."
Santee Cooper has an interest in the outcome of the lawsuit, its lawyers said, because the utility is still considering suing SCANA, the majority partner in the $9 billion project, over the unfinished nuclear reactors located just north of Columbia. SCANA was responsible for overseeing the multibillion dollar reactors for both utilities and reigning in troubled nuclear contactors.
"The settlement may impair Santee Cooper’s rights, and its interests in the subject of this litigation are significant enough to warrant intervention," Santee Cooper's attorneys wrote.
Santee Cooper isn’t opposing the settlement at this point in time, said Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for the Moncks Corner-based utility. It is, however, fighting to obtain more information about the proposed settlement and how the deal was negotiated.
“We want to make sure that we are in a position to receive the information we need from the settlement,” Gore said. “We’re just asking to be part of the process.”
According to the legal motion, Santee Cooper has already requested documents and communications from the parties involved in the settlement discussions.
The lawyers for Santee Cooper argue the utility needs to be involved in the proposed settlement because it is also being sued as a result of the abandoned nuclear project. In addition, the state's 20 electric cooperatives — Santee Cooper's largest customers — have asked a judge to stop the state-run utility from charging their 788,000 ratepayers for the failed project.
"The cases cannot be divorced from one another given the similarity in allegations and alignment of interests," Santee Cooper's attorneys wrote. "Even though one case involves a class of SCE&G customers and the other involves classes of Santee Cooper and cooperative customers, allegations of SCE&G’s conduct are at the heart of both."
Depending on the terms of the settlement, Santee Cooper's attorneys said the deal could "impair or impede Santee Cooper’s interests in the full and fair adjudication of the wrongdoing and responsibility of SCANA and SCE&G."