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Tougher utility regulations advance, as attorneys argue over failed S.C. nuclear project

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A senate panel advanced two bills Tuesday that would toughen the state's utility laws. 

COLUMBIA — Utility companies may soon face tougher resistance in South Carolina as the state's regulators prepare to decide who should pay for two abandoned nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station.

Attorneys are also battling over what documents from that project should be shared with the public. 

A state Senate panel advanced legislation Tuesday that creates a new consumer advocate to represent utility customers. It also gives the Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's existing utility watchdog, the ability to subpoena documents from utilities and their contractors. 

They also moved a bill that will stop other electric utilities from using the Base Load Review Act. That's the 2007 law that enabled SCANA Corp. to charge customers for the unfinished nuclear reactors in Fairfield County while the power plants were being built. 

The two pieces of legislation were passed by the state House earlier this year but the bills got bogged down for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They now head to the Senate floor with less than six days left in the legislative session. 

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Lawmakers pushing the legislation hope the changes will make it easier for the seven regulators on the Public Service Commission to stop SCANA from charging customers for the $9 billion nuclear project in the coming decades.

SCANA's electric customers currently pay $37 million per month for the reactors and the utility wants to continue to charge those ratepayers for the project for the next 20 to 60 years. 

The bills will help the public service commissioners to clarify whether SCANA's decisions during the decade-long nuclear project were justified. 

The legislation could also make it easier for the Office of Regulatory Staff and the environmental groups that are challenging SCANA to prove the utility mislead regulators or failed to disclose vital information about the nuclear project. 

By increasing the Office of Regulatory Staff's ability to subpoena documents, lawmakers hope the agency will obtain information from SCANA, Westinghouse Electric, the primary contractor at V.C. Summer, and Bechtel Corp., an engineering and construction firm that produced a secretive audit of the construction project in 2015. 

"We've got this major landmark case that we are heading into this fall," Nanette Edwards, the acting director for the Office of Regulatory Staff, said in explaining why the changes were needed.  

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

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