Papers and pride clog case Calvert Cliffs: After more than six years of legal battles, lawyers find it hard to see when or if the case of the power plant shutdown will end.

August 12, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Two thousand, four hundred and eleven days. One million pages of testimony, depositions and documents. Four hundred and sixty million dollars -- not counting millions more in legal and consulting fees.

Such is the nature of Case Number 8520K. Despite its vapid name, much hangs in the balance in the case that has taken on life of its own and shows few signs of ending.

The case -- when, or if, it's ever decided -- will determine whether Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was responsible for extended outages at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant beginning in May 1989.

It already has consumed more time and money than any other case that has gone before the state's Public Service Commission (PSC).

And for the people involved, they've had to settle for life's normal milestones while waiting for the outcome of Case 8520K.

PSC Chief Hearing Examiner O. Ray Bourland III, for instance, has gotten married and fathered a son, who will turn 4 next month.

David Perlman, a BGE associate general counsel and the utility's main lawyer in the case, has watched helplessly as his tennis game has tanked, his once weekly matches turned biannual.

And Matthew W. Nayden, an attorney recruited by the Office of People's Counsel (OPC), the state's watchdog agency, has moved three times and his eyesight has worsened, which, he admits, is probably the result of reading the mountain of documents in the case.

"I didn't think this case would be over in a year, but I didn't have a firm grasp that it wouldn't be, either," said Nayden, a lawyer with the firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes and Shriver recruited for the case in early 1990. "I certainly didn't have a clue that it would be entering its seventh year."

At issue is whether BGE or its customers should foot the bill for $460 million in costs associated with the shutdown of Calvert Cliffs -- from May 1989 to May 1991 -- and whether BGE management acted prudently prior to and in the wake of the shutdown at the Lusby plant, which supplies 40 percent of the region's power.

As one would suspect in regard to responsibility, between the two opposing sides is a wide chasm.

People's Counsel argues that the utility should have to pay more than $400 million of the costs of the outage, since its actions extended the shutdown considerably.

BGE puts its responsibility at only $35 million.

And the PSC staff falls somewhere in the middle -- saying BGE should probably be liable for about $161 million.

What many Maryland ratepayers don't realize is that they have already paid most of the tab for Calvert Cliffs' shutdown. BGE has already collected $395 million of the total disputed amount, and a loss on their part in the case would likely result only in a refund to the company's customers.

Likely, though, is the operative word. Many industry experts believe that average residential ratepayers will see little if any sort of refund, based on similar cases decided previously.

Ultimately, Bourland -- or quite possibly the courts -- will decide.

But why has Case 8520K taken so long?

Quite simply, the paper chase of technical testimony -- countless witness depositions, consultant studies and exhibits intended to prove each side's case -- is endless. In Nayden's office at the law firm of Ober, Kaler, the documents bulge out of 12 five-drawer file cabinets, with boxes of other papers piled on top.

The PSC has a similar room, as does the OPC. In total, the paperwork already approaches 1 million pages.

"You may think of a nuclear plant as mainly concrete and steel. But it's also a mountain of documentation," said Ronald E. Alper, the 38-year-old associate PSC staff counsel who has wrestled with the case since its inception, and who acknowledges his hair was dark then, but now is sprinkled with gray.

Even Bourland, who admits to a natural curiosity to things mechanical and a fascination with the workings of a nuclear plant, appears to be drowning in paper.

"This case reminds me of studying for the bar exam," he said last week at the start of eight days of hearings on the case. "I've crammed my head with this case."

It's no wonder.

To prepare for the hearings, attorneys trucked more than 30 boxes of documents on carts into a 16th-floor hearing room in the William Donald Schaefer Tower downtown. For the testimony of just three witnesses, the lawyers stacked 18 thick volumes dating back to March 1994, and seven boxes of other pertinent documents.

The case is awash with technicality. Was BGE at fault when the pressurizer heater sleeves at Calvert Cliffs malfunctioned? Does saltwater cooling system for the nuclear reactor's core have a more corrosive effect than a freshwater cooling process, as attorneys asked? Were the problems that led to the two-year shutdown avoidable?

The documents speak volumes, and they are often contradictory.

Contradictory or not, obtaining those volumes took money -- lots of money.

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