After leaving more than 700,000 of its electric customers on the hook for the cost of two abandoned nuclear reactors, SCE&G continues to try to keep secret what it knew — and when — about the $9 billion project’s woes, S.C. regulators and legislators say.
SCE&G is trying to keep secret roughly 1.4 million pages of documents that could explain more about why the utility’s V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project failed last year.
The utility Friday turned over a hard drive full of documents to the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff, which helps regulate utilities. However, all of the document were marked confidential by SCE&G, a subsidiary of Cayce-based SCANA.
SCE&G also produced a 49-page log of documents that it is withholding from regulators, claiming they are immune from disclosure because they are legal documents covered by attorney–client privilege. That listing also was marked confidential by SCE&G, a move Regulatory Staff called “ridiculous.”
“There is no basis for this designation,” Matthew Richardson, an attorney representing Regulatory Staff, wrote in a letter Tuesday to SCE&G requesting the utility fully comply with state orders to hand over the requested records.
“(T)he privilege log contains no information that is even arguably proprietary, commercially sensitive or otherwise confidential in nature,” Richardson wrote. “The … log merely shows that a communication occurred between certain parties at a certain time concerning a broadly described subject matter.”
The utility provided redacted and confidential responses to Regulatory Staff’s request for records, including documents already handed over to state and federal investigators looking into the failed nuclear project. The records are being sought as part of an ongoing fight before the S.C. Public Service Commission over who — ratepayers or SCANA’s shareholders, or both — should pay off the V.C. Summer debt.
SCE&G and its junior partner in the Fairfield County reactor project, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, borrowed heavily for the $9 billion project before walking away last July. SCE&G’s customers or shareholders, or both, could have to pay billions of dollars more to repay the project’s remaining debt, depending on how the PSC rules in a December hearing on SCE&G’s electric rates.
More than 80 percent of the documents withheld by SCE&G concern analysis and case studies prior to the decision to abandon the nuclear reactors, according to Richardson.
“First, this request seeks information inherently related to the ordinary course of business, not attorney-client advice or litigation work product,” he wrote in his letter to SCE&G. “More specifically (the documents) concern the economic viability of the (nuclear) project and the business rationale or prudency of continuing or abandoning it.”
SCE&G also refused to provide all versions and correspondence related to a 2016 report from the Bechtel Corp. That firm was hired to complete a study on problems at the ill-fated project.
SCE&G says the Bechtel report was commissioned to help prepare for a possible lawsuit against Westinghouse, the project’s lead contractor. However, Regulatory Staff argues the Bechtel report was put together to assess what was going wrong with the construction of two new nuclear reactors northwest of Columbia, not to support a lawsuit.
“They haven’t given us the full story, even after being ordered to” by the PSC, Richardson said. “There needs to be this full disclosure so we can fairly divide those costs between the owners of the company and ratepayers, who won’t see any benefit from this abandoned plan.”
SCE&G also objected to Regulatory Staff’s requests for a list of all utility employees who received bonuses and pay raises for 2018. The utility argues the request is “overly broad and unduly burdensome” and seeks information irrelevant to the case.
Richardson said many of the documents logged as privileged by SCE&G “involve no attorneys whatsoever, but are merely communications between or among management.”
He gave SCE&G until 3 p.m. Friday to provide the requested records or face sanctions, including fines, fees and legal costs.
Additionally, Richardson said Regulatory Staff intends to challenge SCE&G’s request for secrecy for the material that the utility gave the Public Service Commission, but is still sorting through the information.
SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower declined to comment on Regulatory Staff’s objections to the utility’s responses and criticisms of the utility’s attempts to keep the public in the dark.
“We’re going to let the regulatory and judicial process surrounding this issue play out, and we’re going to work through those issues through those processes,” Boomhower said.
State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said SCE&G’s latest refusal to hand over records was unsurprising.
During a two-day special legislative session last month, Massey introduced a resolution to extend to next spring the deadline for the PSC to rule on SCE&G’s rates and Dominion Energy’s proposal to buy the utility’s parent, SCANA, citing what he sees as SCE&G’s exhaustive delaying tactics.
“Regulators have got to use the tools they have (to challenge SCE&G’s refusals), and the Public Service Commission has got to hold (SCE&G’s) feet to the fire,” said Massey, who co-chaired a Senate panel that investigated the the nuclear fiasco. “If both of those things fail, it may be up to the Legislature to extend the deadline again.
“(SCE&G has) got to play by the rules, and if they continue to stonewall people, then there’s going to have to be other actions. Otherwise, the result of this is the public has no protection at all.”