- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Century Aluminum on Monday filed a federal lawsuit accusing South Carolina’s state-owned utility of unfair trade practices related to the company’s smelter in Mount Holly.

In a news release, company officials accused the utility of violating state and federal antitrust laws governing monopolies and unfair trade practices, saying they opted to go to court after negotiations with Santee Cooper failed.

“It is clear to us that unlike other utilities in South Carolina and elsewhere, Santee has willfully violated the laws governing monopolies,” said Century President Michael Bless. “That includes acting as an unregulated, unaccountable monopoly without meaningful oversight by the state.”

In 2015, Century said that it would have to close the plant unless it reached a new contract with the utility. Over the next year, a third-party supplier provided 75 percent of Century’s power, and the company says Santee Cooper unlawfully forced the plant to buy 25 percent of its power at rates that were well above market prices.

Those expenses, according to Bless, ultimately forced Mount Holly to lay off half of its 600 employees to stay afloat. The plant extracts aluminum metal from aluminum oxide by using large amounts of electricity.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, as well as an injunction against Santee Cooper’s behavior.

Santee Cooper “unlawfully tied transmission services for third-party electric power to Century’s purchase of Santee Cooper-generated electric power at monopoly rates,” according to the 23-page complaint.

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper called the suit “frivolous” and promised a “vigorous defense.”

“It is disappointing that Century continues to avoid the real problem facing its Mt. Holly plant, which is that the 2007 recession and global competition have driven aluminum prices 40 percent lower than they were a decade ago,” Gore said. “Their charges are without legal merit, and their demands are still unfair to our other customers.”

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

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