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Mississippi Power’s Kemper County Lignite Plant boondoggle is in the news again. A whistleblower named Kelli Williams (no relation) says company officials lied to get $382 million of federal money for the $7.5 billion failed experiment. She’s suing Mississippi Power and its Southern Company parent under the False Claims Act. She’s seeking $1.1 billion in treble damages.
She was a Southern Company construction manager assigned to the Kemper project. She had a ringside view of the coverups. Actually, she was in the ring until the company kicked her out – she says for trying to tell the truth.
She says company officials lied about construction delays and cost overruns and withheld information from federal officials and the Mississippi Public Service Commission – information that would have jeopardized federal funding and the PSC’s authorization to build the plant. She filed the suit in 2018 under seal to allow review by the Department of Justice. The DOJ turned a blind eye, and the suit was unsealed late last month. The companies have not yet responded in court.
Bigger Pie didn’t have a ringside seat. But we smelled a rat and hired an expert to analyze the project. He confirmed our suspicions. We tried to expose the project’s lies. We wrote over 50 articles about it. We met with low income customers who struggled to pay their pre Kemper electric bills. We met with Mississippi Power’s CEO who gave us a tour of the construction project to allay our misgivings. It created more misgivings. We met with PSC Commissioners. One shared our concerns. The others were oblivious.
We met with the Public Utilities Staff Executive Director (now retired) and the then new Governor (also retired now) to explain the risks of the experimental gasifier and the out-of-control project management. The PUS is the nominal watchdog of the PSC. The Legislature created it in the wake of Grand Gulf scandals which sent two PSC Commissioners to prison. Now it’s a sleepy watchdog pet of the utilities. Its Director heard our concerns about the utilities’ lies and bemusedly said : “They never lied to us before.” And did nothing.
The PSC failed to do its job year after year. Its job is to see that customers get affordable reliable electricity. Commissioners and the appointed PUS executive director, and staffers come and go. Just passing through. They defer analyses about the need for, the reliability of, and the cost of electricity to the utilities. They seldom seek or heed independent advice. They have relinquished their authority. The utilities have usurped it.
Truth is, the utilities have the PSC on a leash. They have captured the commission that’s supposed to regulate them – and protect customers from their monopolistic abuses. Government granted monopolies. They have powerful allies: hustlers who promote unneeded uneconomic plants, contractors who build them, equipment vendors selling to contractors, etc. And politicians and federal agencies who throw taxpayer dollars and tax breaks at green fantasies. How many green fantasies have trusting regulators
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