The fight to keep Century’s smelter at Mt. Holly running was taken to federal court yesterday, as the firm filed suit against state-owned South Carolina Public Service Authority, known colloquially as Santee Cooper, alleging violations of state and federal antitrust laws.
Century’s lawsuit alleges that Santee Cooper has been operating without meaningful state or federal government oversight, and has abused its monopoly over power transmission in the state to force Century to pay inflated prices for electricity.
Century went on to say that costs represent an “existential threat” that makes it economically impossible to operate the Mount Holly smelter.
Although most of South Carolina’s electrical utilities are regulated by a state agency, Santee Cooper is governed by a politically-appointed board of governors that is not subject to oversight from a regulating body.
A representative from Santee Cooper said that the lawsuit is an attempt by Century to obtain through a court the same concessions they have been seeking during the ongoing negotiations, and that granting Century such terms would require Santee Cooper’s other customers to subsidize Century’s electrical costs.
“The one thing Santee Cooper will not do is agree to terms with Century that require subsidy from our other customers, and yet that is what Century continues to demand,” said Santee Cooper representative Mollie Gore.
She said that the real issue Century faces is the depressed aluminium market.
“Rather than spending money on a frivolous lawsuit, Century should develop a fair, legal and realistic plan for Mount Holly that addresses the global aluminum marketplace,” she said.
Century’s CEO Mike Bless countered by pointing out that the aluminium market is on the mend and that the firm’s smelters in Kentucky are in the black because they can buy electricity on the open market.
“It really is just a power issue,” Bless said. “Our power costs in South Carolina are 50 percent higher than in Kentucky, and our Kentucky plants are chugging along with a fine long-term future.”
Century previously attempted to obtain the right to buy electricity on the open market via legislation last year, but to no avail, as the bills died in committee.
“Our view was that we could go through that again (this year), but we were reasonably certain the result would be the same,” he said. Bless said Century “reluctantly made the choice to proceed with the lawsuit only after all else failed, including a recent final face-to-face attempt to reach resolution with Santee Cooper.”