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Gov. Henry McMaster sets deadline for Santee Cooper buyers, pushes interim CEO

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SCE&G and V.C. Summer Nuclear Station co-owner Santee Cooper placed the third containment vessel ring on Unit 2 on June 9, 2017. Santee Cooper announced on Friday plans to kill expected rate hikes in the wake of abandoning the nuclear project. File/Provided

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster has set Sunday as the deadline for potential suitors to formally get in line to buy Santee Cooper, The Post and Courier learned Wednesday.

The governor also is pushing Steve Hamm, director of the State Ethics Commission, to become interim chief executive of the state-owned electric utility. Hamm argued electric rate cases during his 13-year stint as director of the state's consumer watchdog agency. Hamm, who said he would be willing take the new post, worked with McMaster when the governor was U.S. attorney.

"He's a change agent to protect ratepayers and turn off the lights when Santee Cooper is sold," said Trey Walker, McMaster's chief of staff.

Santee Cooper Chairman Leighton Lord and a utility spokeswoman did not return requests immediately Wednesday for comments on the utility's plans to succeed CEO Lonnie Carter, who announced his retirement last month.

Carter departs amid criticism for the utility abandoning a partially-built Fairfield County nuclear plant expansion after spending $9 billion with project partner S.C. Electric & Gas Co. The closure cost more than 5,000 employees their jobs. 

McMaster has taken the lead in trying to sell Santee Cooper in the hopes of restarting construction. The Moncks Corner-based power provider is burdened with $8 billion in debt — half of which comes from paying for nuclear construction. Santee Cooper and SCANA, the parent of SCE&G, are selling at a discount their interest in a $2.2 billion settlement with the nuclear plant's bankrupt contractor. 

The governor has said several electric utilities and individuals have expressed interest in buying Santee Cooper. His office has declined to identify them. 

Walker said he is unsure the office will name possible buyers once they submit their interest next week. He did not have a timeline for accepting formal bids or completing a sale. 

The Legislature will have to approve a sale of Santee Cooper. Walker said the governor's office was still weighing whether to share all the bids with lawmakers or submit one considered the best.

McMaster met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Tuesday about extending a federal loan guarantee program for nuclear construction to aid in selling Santee Cooper. 

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