Why Santee Cooper is on the chopping block
As S.C. senators debate the fate of Santee Cooper this week, the South Carolinians who could be most affected by the state-owned utility’s sale will be listening in just a few steps away.
A small but vocal group of Santee Cooper employees and retirees have built a presence at the State House over the past two weeks, taking vacation days and spending their own money on gas and materials to persuade lawmakers not to sell the 85-year-old utility.
Wearing stickers that read “Save Santee Cooper” and “Reform, Don’t Sell,” they have sat in on Senate hearings and floor debates, hoping to put a human face on a utility scarred by its $4 billion role in the failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant construction project.
“This is our company. We’re South Carolinians,” said Dean Smith, an energy efficiency adviser who has worked out of Santee Cooper’s Moncks Corner headquarters for 17 years. “We need to let people know that even though we have hit a roadblock with the V.C. Summer debt, we can come through it and be better on the other side.”
Smith is part of a group, Friends of Santee Cooper, that formed a few weeks ago as the utility’s employees and retirees realized the effort to sell Santee Cooper had become serious.
The S.C. General Assembly is considering a sale only after the multibillion-dollar utility wasted $4 billion before abandoning a decade-long effort to build two more nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County in July 2017.
The project’s collapse took state lawmakers and the public by surprise and could cost the two million South Carolinians who get their power from Santee Cooper — either directly or through a co-op — thousands of dollars more in higher power bills over the next four decades. Lawmakers and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster say a sale could pay off that debt so customers aren’t charged for it.
But Santee Cooper employees and retirees — along with some state senators — are skeptical.
In social media posts and emails to state senators, they have warned selling Santee Cooper to a for-profit power company, such as North Carolina-based Duke Energy or Florida-based NextEra Energy, could lead to higher electric rates for customers and layoffs for many of Santee Cooper’s 1,625 employees.
Employees and retirees alike say a sale could threaten their pensions and health insurance benefits, in addition to their jobs. They have used Facebook and Twitter to spread “fact sheets” about Santee Cooper’s electric rates, economic development efforts and value to South Carolina.
“We are all for reforming the utility or making changes to make it operate better, but to sell it to an investor owned (utility) is not a win for anybody except for the investors,” said Susan Mungo, a Santee Cooper retiree in Horry County who worked for the company for 29 years.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he remembers getting similar messages from SCE&G employees last year before lawmakers passed a law to slash that utility’s V.C. Summer-bloated rates.
Massey said those appeals are scare tactics that ignore Santee Cooper’s role in the project’s failure and discount the possibility that a for-profit utility could purchase Santee Cooper, pay off its debt and offer lower power bills.
“They are concerned about their jobs, their retirement, their health insurance, and that’s understandable,” Massey said. “I think lots of times they have been given bad information.”
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms, a Berkeley Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper’s headquarters, said the employees could boost his defense of Santee Cooper during the Senate debate this week.
“There are people who have devoted their lives to the service of our state through Santee Cooper who have been marginalized by this debate,” Grooms said. “When you can see there is a real person who could be affected by this, you might listen to the debate a little more closely.”
Mungo and Karyn Seesan, a retired Santee Cooper customer service representative, have helped lead the Friends of Santee Cooper group, traveling from Horry County each week and staying in a hotel between legislative days.
They say they have had to quickly learn about the legislative process and are doing their best to advocate for Santee Cooper’s employees who can’t take time off from work to speak for themselves.
“We are flying by the seat of our pants,” Seesan said.
One of them is Smith, who made his first trek to the State House three weeks ago and his last one Wednesday.
“I’ve got to stay at work a little bit,” he said, laughing.