Senate bill would ‘pause’ Pioneer plant until court ruling
By Justin Lee Campbell
SENECA — A local state legislator has filed a joint resolution in the Senate that would require Pioneer Rural Water District to halt construction on a $19 million water treatment plant until a court rules on the plant’s fate.
Sens. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, and Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson, introduced a resolution Wednesday “to direct (Pioneer) to cease activity related to the construction of a water treatment plant until a court makes a final determination whether or not (Pioneer) has the authority to construct” a plant.
Oconee County and the cities of Seneca and Westminster filed a declaratory action against Pioneer this month seeking an injunction to stop construction of the plant in violation of its charter.
The complaint alleges Pioneer “does not have the authority” to construct a plant “because sufficient water is available to Pioneer from other sources,” according to court records.
Pioneer buys about 60 percent of its water from Seneca and 40 percent from Westminster.
The complaint also cites an opinion issued in 2012 by the state attorney general’s office saying Pioneer’s enabling charter does not explicitly provide for constructing a treatment plant, but rather Pioneer’s primary purpose is distributing water.
Alexander told The Journal on Thursday he is “just asking to hit the pause button” on the project.
“Let’s take a timeout while there are legal proceedings addressing the issue,” Alexander said. “My concern is for ratepayers, as (Pioneer) continues to incur expenses on a daily basis on work being done. Obviously there’s a price tag.”
Despite a request for a 90-day halt to the project by Oconee County Councilman Julian Davis and a new contract offer from Westminster, Pioneer signaled at a special called meeting in March it planned on moving forward with the plant.
The Pioneer board of directors unanimously approved a motion at a special called meeting this month to hire Wyche Law Firm of Greenville to represent Pioneer against the recent litigation.
Alexander said pausing the project is the right thing to do “until an outcome is decided.”
“It’s appropriate until pending litigation is resolved by the judicial system,” he said.
Alexander’s resolution was placed on the Senate calendar after first reading without reference to a committee. The procedural move shortens the resolution’s path to the governor’s desk.
“It’s really much more about just trying to act in a way that gives immediate resolution in putting a timeout on (construction) until the courts have some time to speak on the matter,” Alexander said. “I’m sensitive to the time constraints we have. It puts the Senate in a position to speak and act in a timely manner.”
State Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, tried to push through 11th-hour legislation earlier this month that would further restrict Pioneer’s ability to construct a water treatment plant. He attempted to have the bill passed without reference, but Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Anderson, objected, and it was referred to the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee on April 4.
Sandifer said he was hopeful it would pass the House this session, but it won’t make South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk this year, as it did not reach the Senate by this year’s crossover date.
Alexander stressed his resolution would not prevent Pioneer from ever building a plant but rather let the courts decide if Pioneer has the authority to build a plant now. Alexander said he “was very careful to make sure” the language was clear.
“There are legal issues pending on the matter,” Alexander said. “To my knowledge, Pioneer continues to spend money on a daily basis on the project.”
And Alexander said he is worried Pioneer customers will have to foot the bill.
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