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Santee Cooper, South Carolina's only state-run utility, wants to settle a legal dispute with the state's electric cooperatives out of court — and possibly out of public view. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

COLUMBIA — Santee Cooper wants to settle its ongoing legal battle with South Carolina's electric cooperatives outside a courtroom — a move that could shield the dispute from the public and the more than 788,000 co-op customers who continue to pay for two abandoned nuclear reactors. 

Last week, Santee Cooper's attorneys asked a circuit judge to move the lawsuit between the state-run utility and the electric cooperatives into arbitration, a procedure that allows legal matters to be worked out more quickly and often behind closed doors. 

“We have an ongoing business relationship, an important relationship with (the electric cooperatives), so we think the sooner disputes are worked out, the better," said Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for Santee Cooper. 

The highly consequential fight is the latest legal drama to play out since Santee Cooper and its project partner, SCANA, canceled the decade-long V.C. Summer nuclear project last July. 

The request for arbitration comes more than four months after the state's 20 electric cooperatives filed a claim against Santee Cooper, asking a judge to stop the utility from charging co-op customers for the unfinished nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. 

The stakes of that legal challenge escalated last month when attorneys for the co-ops asked the judge to set aside the $6.6 million per month that co-op customers reportedly pay toward the failed reactors until the litigation is resolved. 

Losing that income from the electric cooperatives — Santee Cooper's largest customers — could severely impact the utility's finances. Santee Cooper, based in Moncks Corner, borrowed more than $4 billion in bonds to bankroll its share of the nuclear project.

If a judge rules in the co-op's favor, it could force Santee Cooper's 179,000 direct customers to shoulder the cost of V.C. Summer alone, and, in a worst case scenario, could force the utility to default on its bond payments. 

Santee Cooper's request for arbitration stems from the primary contract between the utility and Central Electric Power Cooperative — the entity that buys electricity for all of the co-ops that are spread throughout South Carolina's 46 counties.

In the legal motion, Santee Cooper's attorneys argue the co-ops agreed to settle "any" dispute over that contract through arbitration. But the electric cooperatives plan to oppose Santee Cooper's attempt to force the case into arbitration, said Lou Green, a spokesman for the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. 

Arbitration hasn't been used to settle a dispute between the two groups in more than 25 years, according to officials with Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives. It is being utilized now as the long-held business relationship eroded in the face of the cancellation at V.C. Summer. 

Santee Cooper's push for arbitration comes at a time when the state-run utility is under increasing pressure for not being transparent enough with state leaders or its customers. State lawmakers for months have criticized the utility for not blowing the whistle on the serious construction problems and schedule delays that plagued the nuclear project. 

The Post and Courier revealed earlier this year that Santee Cooper's nuclear team doubted SCANA's ability to manage the V.C. Summer project for years but continued to pour billions of dollars into the troubled construction project. 

It's unclear at this point whether the public would be able to follow the legal negotiations during arbitration. Santee Cooper officials say it would be up to the arbitrators — the people who are chosen as judges — to decide what the public can and can't access.

"Santee Cooper is certainly committed to doing as much in public as we’re allowed to within any proceedings," Gore said. 

The cooperatives say differently. Arbitration is not a public process or forum, they said. 

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