Hopes of saving Mt. Holly jobs fade as bill dies

Officials at Century Aluminum’s Mount Holly plant in Berkeley County hoped lawmakers would pass a deal that would help it stay open. File

Century Aluminum has struck out a second time in its attempts to get power rate relief from the S.C. General Assembly, and the Mount Holly smelter owner says it only has a few months left before it will have to pull the plug on the Goose Creek plant and its 300 jobs.

The public utilities subcommittee of the House Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry last week voted 4-2 to kill a bill that would have let Century buy all of the electricity for its Berkeley County operation on the open market. Century currently gets 75 percent of its power from an undisclosed provider. It's required to buy the other 25 percent from state-owned Santee Cooper.

A similar bill that was introduced in the state Senate two years ago also died without getting out of committee.

Rep. Katie Arrington, a Summerville Republican who sponsored the most recent legislation, said she is "very disappointed" in its failure, adding that ongoing efforts by Gov. Henry McMaster and the state Commerce Department to broker a deal is likely Mount Holly's last hope.

"They need to keep the pressure on Santee Cooper," Arrington said.

A Commerce Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Century's current contract with Santee Cooper expires at the end of this year. Mike Bless, the aluminum maker's president and CEO, said Mount Holly needs to start negotiating its open-market power buys no later than this summer, but it won't move ahead if it still has to purchase one-fourth of its electricity from Santee Cooper.

Bless has said Santee Cooper's power rates are too high to make operations at the Mount Holly plant feasible. Arrington said the company pays Georgia utility Southern Co. about $35 per megawatt hour for its open-market electricity. Santee Cooper's price for the same amount of power, she said, is about $60.

Santee Cooper says it must charge Mount Holly for one-fourth of its power needs to cover the costs of transmitting electricity to the smelter and to ensure the utility's other customers don't wind up subsidizing the aluminum maker. Santee Cooper hasn't budged on that stance, calling the prospects of Century profiting at others' expense a non-starter.

Century previously cut Mount Holly's production — and staffing levels — in half, and Bless said the rest could go to the company's Kentucky smelters, which have lower electricity costs and stand to benefit from tariffs President Donald Trump has enacted on imports of foreign aluminum.

The power dispute is long-running, with the smelter's owners seeking concessions from Santee Cooper at least a half-dozen times since the plant opened. The current contract calling for a 75-25 split is identical to an agreement both sides reached in 2012, and Santee Cooper says its concessions have saved the smelter $153 million since that time.

Century Aluminum has also gone to court in its attempts to resolve the power dilemma. Last year, a federal judge in Charleston rejected the manufacturer's claims that Santee Cooper is violating anti-trust laws.

Century Aluminum is appealing that court decision, but that appeal likely won't be heard in time to meet the late-summer deadline Bless said the company must meet for open-market power buys.

Joining the GSA

A Columbia real estate developer and trustee at the College of Charleston has been appointed by the Trump administration to oversee the Southeast region for the federal General Services Administration

Brian Stern will oversee all of GSA's operations in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, including management of federal real estate and information technology. He will also be responsible for GSA's largest real estate portfolio outside of the nation's capital, spanning about 44 million square feet in 1,500 federally owned and leased facilities across eight states.

Stern, a CofC graduate, is a partner in Stern Development, which builds retail, office and industrial projects throughout the Southeast. Bill Stern, the development firm's president, is chairman of the State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston.

The GSA builds, manages and preserves government buildings and leases and manages commercial real estate. it also offers private-sector professional services, equipment, supplies and information-technology to government organizations and the military.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_