Should the US government step in and bail out a whopping $2.25 billion debt incurred by a Pacific Northwest power group? After this week's default by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), the whole issue of the federal role in the Northwest nuclear power controversy is expected to land in the lap of Congress, the US Supreme Court, and, most likely, the White House. And what must be recognized by the American public is that any federal bailout effort - however well-intentioned or of whatever dollar size - would establish a significant new precedent for future bailouts of troubled construction projects involving public funds.
The default by WPPSS - dubbed ''Whoops'' - on two unfinished nuclear power plants already constitutes the largest municipal bond default in the nation's history. It means that thousands of bondholders - many of them elderly citizens who have put all or a large part of their savings into the issues - now hold bonds that are worth only a fraction of their original investment. The default also means that a financial cloud has been cast over issuers of municipal bonds in general, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. At the least, issuers of municipal bonds will have to pay higher interest rates than would have been the case without the WPPSS default.
Congress should take a hard look at the tangled WPPSS affair. Not so much with an eye to providing federal help - a questionable step, one which would seem unfair to electricity users in other parts of the United States - but to ensure that no federal laws were broken and to help municipalities avoid similar financial difficulties on other major construction projects.
From the outset, in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the WPPSS undertaking raised some eyebrows. The enormous project involved the construction of five nuclear power plants to supply electricity to the Northwest. The project was originally supposed to cost $4.1 billion. Because of cost overruns and delays, the price tag soared to $24 billion by last year. In fact, despite some $8 billion in bonds outstanding, only one plant is near completion, expected to be started up early in 1984. Two more are in various stages of construction but need additional financing. Plants 4 and 5 are terminated because of this week's default.
Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs? Did deceptive practices occur in the sale of the bonds? What was the role of the federal Bonneville Power Administration? These are among the matters that Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the courts must now determine. The Supreme Court of Washington State recently ruled that 88 public utilities operating in the Pacific Northwest are not legally obligated on the huge debt. Yet these same utilities had entered into a contract with WPPSS for the construction of the two nuclear power plants. Chemical Bank seems justified in appealing the state judicial decision to the US Supreme Court.
Precisely because the complicated WPPSS controversy is in the federal court system, Congress is on solid ground in avoiding any quick infusion of federal funds. Meanwhile it is clear that from now on investors and municipal agencies will take a particularly cautious look at multibillion-dollar crash construction projects that are billed as the ''solution'' to public problems.