In recent years, lawmakers such as Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg have been among those saying the Legislature and state government in general get too little oversight and coverage from the news media. The veteran lawmakers compare the present Statehouse press contingent with its dearth of reporters to years past when journalists covered state government in force. Their message echoes one that most often comes from media about the importance of a free press serving as a watchdog on government.
Even with fewer reporters, the media recently have shown the importance of journalists doing their jobs in detailing a story of vital importance to many South Carolinians and their state government: the failure of the Fairfield County nuclear project.
Shareholder-owned SCANA Corp., parent company of S.C. Electric & Gas Co., and state-owned Santee Cooper decided to abandon construction of two nuclear reactors with $10 billion spent and the project far behind schedule. The decision prompted a firestorm of reaction, from lawmakers down to ratepayers, who have already paid more than $2 billion through a series of rate hikes since 2009.
Answers have been demanded from both utilities. The project’s failure is being investigated by two state legislative committees, the FBI, the state Attorney General’s Office and the State Law Enforcement Division.
Many news outlets have contributed to important reporting on the unfolding story, but The Post and Courier of Charleston and The State of Columbia have proven again that newspapers are vital in keeping citizens – and those they elect – informed through investigating important stories.
The two newspapers are not alone in their efforts. The Associated Press does original reporting and shares reporting from member news outlets with other newspapers and media around the state. What is happening with the story is important beyond audiences in Charleston and Columbia.
The work has brought to light key developments ranging from the utilities’ plans to recoup losses from ratepayers to bonuses for top-level officials involved in managing the nuclear project, as well as warnings to both entities that the venture was in trouble. The reporting has been key in raising the public profile of a disastrous saga that has state leaders seeking remedies.
The reporting goes on amid recent developments including legislative hearings. During those proceedings, Santee Cooper, the junior partner in the nuclear project, has laid much of the blame on SCANA for failure to heed warnings about problems.
Toward presenting a fuller picture, the press was again out front.
Andy Shain of The Post and Courier reported on SCANA’s response after obtaining a letter written by the corporation’s top lawyer, Jim Stuckey, to his counterpart at Santee Cooper, Michael Baxley.
In the letter, Stuckey accused Santee Cooper of painting an inaccurate picture that minimized its input and oversight of the nuclear project in an attempt to shift blame to SCANA.
"SCE&G leadership has showed tremendous restraint in not attempting to answer every mischaracterization that Santee Cooper has made in its letters and emails over the past several years," Stuckey wrote. "SCE&G's reticence to respond to each Santee Cooper email and letter that omits important details and context — out of a desire to be respectful to the company's project partner — has contributed to the confusion about the facts."
The response is an expansion of the blame game between the utilities that does little to assuage SCANA’s responsibility in the debacle. Yet reporting on it continues the press doing important work in getting needed answers in an unfolding story that The State’s Associate Editor Cindi Ross Scoppe correctly opines is “a disaster with no heroes.”