SCANA lawsuits

James Becker, an attorney with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, asks circuit judge John Hayes III on Monday, Jan. 8., 2018, to dismiss five action lawsuits filed against SCANA, the majority owner of two failed nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station. Andrew Brown/Staff 

COLUMBIA — SCANA asked a judge Monday to dismiss five class-action lawsuits filed by ratepayers against the Cayce-based utility company over its handling of the failed $9 billion nuclear project at V.C. Summer station. 

The utility company's attorneys argued the lawsuits should not be decided in circuit court, but in front of the South Carolina Public Service Commission — the state's utility regulators. 

"You lack the experience of the PSC," James Becker, an attorney with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd representing the utility, told Circuit Judge John C. Hayes. "Let it play out in the PSC. Let it play out in front of the South Carolina Supreme Court." 

The hearing, which was held in Richland County Court, is only the latest dispute to arise in the wake of the $9 billion nuclear cancellation in Fairfield County. The state's utility commission and the state Legislature are also set to deliberate over who should pay for the costly boondoggle. 

During an hours-long presentation, Becker repeatedly cited the Base Load Review Act, a 2007 state law that allowed SCANA to charge its 700,000 customers of the now-abandoned nuclear reactors before they were finished. SCANA, he said, "followed the law to the letter." 

SCANA's former general counsel, Belton Zeigler, helped write the Base Load Review Act more than a decade ago as an attorney for Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd. 

That utility-friendly law, Becker argued, mandates that any disputes over the nuclear project be handled in front of the state's seven utility regulators and that any action by the circuit court would be a "frontal assault" on the PSC decisions.

It remains unclear whether the state utility commissioners will get a chance to decide whether SCANA or its customers continue to pay for the unfinished reactors near Jenkinsville. Several lawmakers called for the state's current regulators to resign following a Post and Courier investigation that highlighted dozens of utility-funded conference trips that those officials took over the past five years. 

State lawmakers plan to take the matter into their own hands when they return to Columbia on Tuesday for the start of the 2018 legislative session. Many senators and representatives want to strip nearly $37 million a month that SCANA currently collects from its customers for the cancelled project. 

Lawyers from the state Attorney General's office and a number of law firms representing electric customers disagreed with SCANA's request to dismiss the cases. 

Bob Cook, the state's Solicitor General, argued the Base Load Review Act was unconstitutional, and said the 2007 law left customers "out in the cold." 

"I don't believe this statute was enacted in the public interest. I believe it was enacted in the utility's interest," Cook said. "I don't see where the public has benefited for paying and paying and paying for a hole in the ground." 

Daniel Haltiwanger, an attorney from Richard, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman representing ratepayers, argued SCANA electric customers never got proper notice about the rate increases. The law, he said, ensured the utility commission could only "rubber stamp" SCANA's requests to increase customers monthly bills. 

Judge Hayes sat quietly for most of the day taking in the arguments. But as the hearing began to wrap up, he asked what should happen if he rules that the Base Load Review Act is unconstitutional. 

"I don't think there's any question that ratepayers should get their money back," Haltiwanger answered. 

The judge did not offer a ruling Monday and did not indicate when a decision would be made.

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