Workers fired by the abandonment of a nuclear power project in South Carolina packed the Statehouse on Wednesday as legislators pledged to overhaul the utility review process that allowed the multibillion-dollar debacle.
The "catastrophic" end of the project at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station shows the current regulatory process doesn't adequately protect residents or the state as a whole, said Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat.
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"You deserve better," he told the crowded lobby.
Smith is part of a new, bipartisan Energy Caucus he pledged would "ask the tough questions and understand how this thing got so far off the rails."
The project's owners — South Carolina Electric & Gas and state-owned Santee Cooper — decided Monday to halt construction following years of delays and cost overruns and the bankruptcy of its main contractor. The abrupt end to a project customers have been funding since 2009 put about 6,000 people out of work.
Employees of its more than 100 contractors said they were given just minutes Monday to collect their belongings and leave.
"It's tough for both of us to have zero income," said Angela Jones of Lexington, a mother of two whose husband also worked at the site.
Jennifer Messina of Chapin, whose husband was a Fluor electrician, said the job losses will devastate her town 14 miles from the station.
"People are walking out on their leases. Businesses will suffer immensely," she said.
For workers who are also SCE&G customers, it's a double whammy.
The project accounts for 18 percent of SCE&G's residential electric bills and more than 8 percent of Santee Cooper's. Neither company plans to refund a dime. And executives with SCE&G's parent company, SCANA, told regulators Tuesday they want permission to recover an additional $5 billion in costs over 60 years.
In 2007, legislators created the system allowing that to happen. Now the new Energy Caucus wants to change it.
"We unfortunately have given more of a blank check to the utilities than we ever should have," and regulators aren't doing their job, said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican first elected to the House in 2012. "My one promise is this will never happen again."
The 2007 law allows electric utilities to collect money from customers to finance a project before it generates power and recoup costs even if it's never operational, provided state regulators approve. Proponents argued the pay-as-you-go method would save customers money long-term on plants necessary to prevent future rolling blackouts.
"Where we sit today is 180 degrees from that position," Finlay said. "Us, our children and, if the plan is to be believed, our grandchildren will be paying for the colossal mistakes that have been made."
Caucus members said changes could include firing state regulators who are elected by the Legislature.
By law, the Public Service Commission must approve SCE&G's abandonment plans. The same commission approved the project in 2009, as well as all nine requested rate hikes since. Freshman Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia, called it the "Puppet Service Commission."
SCE&G's request to recover $5 billion, which covers expenses since June 2016, could be denied if regulators determine the payments weren't "prudent." The utility has asked commissioners to rule quickly. Legislators warned against that.
Tom Clements with Friends of the Earth said the utility's request to "milk everyone" of tens of thousands of dollars over decades for a project they'll never benefit from is "the height of madness."
SCE&G executives said Tuesday customers' rates won't go up again, despite the continued expenses, for at least several years. They could not specify how long. The company plans to use its $1.2 billion share of a settlement to offset hikes.
The project was already billions over the original $11 billion budget when Westinghouse, hired as primary contractor in 2008, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.
SCE&G and Santee Cooper, the 45 percent owner, jointly announced last week that Westinghouse's parent company, Toshiba Corp., agreed to jointly pay them $2.2 billion regardless of whether the reactors are ever completed.
The initial 2008 timeline called for the first reactor to open in 2016 and the second in 2019. The utilities' latest analysis shows the project likely couldn't be completed until 2024, and that costs could ultimately top $20 billion.