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CityWatch: Public Service Commission smacks South Carolina utility, more battles to come

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Congaree turtles

Turtles in the Congaree River. Photo by John Carlos

With Blue Granite Water back in the news this week thanks to customer backlash against proposed water and sewer rate hikes (steep ones) and plans to have ratepayers fund new corporate offices (plush ones), big battles lie ahead for the less-than-consumer-friendly utility.

While those fights will play out across the coming months before the state Public Service Commission, a recent case involving Blue Granite Water and the PSC is worthy of attention now — and in a good way.

As the decision was announced during the Christmas holidays, you may have missed it. But here is the headline from Free Times on Dec. 26:

“Regulators: Private company can’t charge ratepayers for lawyers’ fees in Riverkeeper suit.”

That is big news, as it signals (hopefully) a new reality: that the Public Service Commission, long the lap dog of the utility companies it is supposed to regulate, is actually moving toward protecting consumers.

While the PSC (and the Legislature and corporate boards and other regulators) wasted years of our time and billions of our dollars on the now abandoned nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, this case does not concern that debacle.

Instead of being about behemoth entities like SCANA/SCE&G (now gone to history) and Santee Cooper (probably on the way there), this is about a small but long troublesome utility known as Blue Granite Water (formerly Carolina Water Service).

It seems Blue Granite was trying to get its customers to pay its legal fees in a federal lawsuit against the company, filed and won by the Congaree Riverkeeper organization.

While my opinion of Carolina Water Service and its pollution of the Lower Saluda and other local waterways was made clear during that long-running fight (I referred to it as a “renegade, rinky dink, reprobate polluter”), I had hoped the new version of the company would take a new attitude.

Apparently not. Instead, Blue Granite tried to force its customers to pay for its mistakes. From that December Free Times story:

“State regulators have ruled that private utility Blue Granite Water – formerly Carolina Water Service – cannot recover from its ratepayers more than $400,000 it used to defend itself in a federal lawsuit with Congaree Riverkeeper over pollution from Blue Granite’s former I-20 wastewater treatment facility.”

And that is as it should be. As the PSC said in its directive, per Free Times:

“Blue Granite was obligated under the law to comply with the Clean Water Act in its operation of facilities and did not secure anything for its customers it did not already owe them under the law.”

Well said. And if Blue Granite’s new management has any fiscal or public relations sense, it will stop trying to impose the legal fees from its losing case and losing behavior onto its customers.

But that remains in question. As the story further reported, “A spokesman for Blue Granite says the private utility is considering an appeal.”

Blue Granite customers should let the company know, in strong terms, how they feel about the utility trying to stick them with the bill for the management incompetence, insolence and intransigence that ultimately led to the Congaree Riverkeeper lawsuit and victory in federal court.

In a larger sense, the PSC ruling is also a welcome departure from the past. Whereas our utilities have generally had their way with those supposedly regulating them, this ruling (if it stands), will have real meaning.

Specifically, it will put the burden on utility executives to shoot both straight and promptly, rather than being allowed to endlessly delay environmental or fiscal directives from regulatory agencies and even courts.

Which is exactly what Carolina Water Service did for over two decades with its repeated pollution of the Lower Saluda and refusal to hook into the Lexington sewer system, as ordered.

The importance of the PSC decision was further illustrated by the Free Times story:

“Congaree Riverkeeper is a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of rivers and waterways in the Midlands. The organization’s director, Bill Stangler, tells Free Times the PSC’s decision is significant. 

'This is an important ruling that helps ensure that corporate polluters don’t get to pass the costs of their violations on to their customers,' Stangler says."

Indeed it is, and may it usher in a new era of the Public Service Commission serving and protecting the public.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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