She complained about her water. Now SC utility is threatening to sue her

Lawyers for a small drinking water utility are threatening to sue a Fairfield County woman over her complaints about the water it pipes to thousands of rural residents.

In a March 28 letter, attorneys for the Jenkinsville Water Co. accuse Bertha Goins of making “false and misleading statements’’ to the media about the quality of the utility’s water.

The water, at times, has come out muddy and contained sediments, Goins told The State for a recent series of stories on the troubles small drinking water systems face. The newspaper’s series found that Jenkinsville has faced multiple state enforcement actions over its failure to comply with safe drinking water laws and regulations.

The cease-and-desist letter, written by the Goodwyn Law Firm of Columbia, says Goins should “stop such illegal activities’’ or potentially face a lawsuit for slander and defamation.

“If you continue to make such false and defamatory statements, I have been instructed to take all legal steps to enforce my client’s rights, including filing suit against you, for injunctive relief, slander, and defamation, seeking all damages allowed by law,’’ Columbia attorney T. Jeff Goodwyn Jr. wrote to Goins.

Goins, who serves on the Fairfield County Council, said the letter is an attempt to intimidate her into keeping her mouth shut.

A former Jenkinsville Water Co. board member, Goins said she has told the truth about substandard drinking water in the small community north of Columbia. The letter is an infringement on her free speech rights, said Goins and Fairfield County Attorney Tommy Morgan.

“When I first read this letter, I was kind of in shock,’’ Goins said. “I live here and the water quality matters, the development of the county matters. To tell me to shut up about it, you are just like threatening me. If I don’t hush, then you are going to sue me? Then what’s next? What else will you do to me to shut my mouth?’’

Goins, who addressed the matter at Monday night’s Fairfield County Council meeting, said the Jenkinsville water system’s pipes are in poor shape, which presents a threat to the quality of the water.

Morgan said the letter is a hollow legal threat that would not stand up in court. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, he said.

“That letter is completely baseless and has no legal grounds by which they can assert the right to stop Miss Bertha’’ from talking, Morgan said. “It’s clearly violative, in my mind, of her First Amendment rights.’’

The water company’s letter to Goins follows stories in The State chronicling the trouble small utilities have providing safe drinking water to customers.

Using records obtained under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, The State detailed problems in Jenkinsville and in other poor, out-of-the way communities served by small, aging water companies.

The series found that many small utilities face difficulties providing clean drinking water because they don’t have either the money or expertise to fix problems. But many small systems cling to power, rather than consolidate with regional systems, because they are concerned about losing control.

Statewide, more than 150 small utilities have broken safe drinking water laws multiple times since 1990, including at least 59 in the past decade, the newspaper found.

Jenkinsville, which serves more than 2,500 people, is among them. During the past 22 years, state regulators have made five drinking water enforcement cases against the Jenkinsville Water Co., four since 2010, The State reported. Those included one that carried a $14,000 fine — an unusually large penalty — after the water company failed for four days in 2012 to tell customers about dangerous E coli bacteria in the water.

In 2017, state records show that an ion exchange filter was not working for uranium and that some radioactivity levels were rising. A fall 2017 Department of Health and Environmental Control log sheet said the issue could lead to a drinking water violation.

The Jenkinsville Water Co. is in the same area as the V.C. Summer nuclear plant, but records indicate the threat of radioactivity to drinking water more likely comes from natural sources. Radioactivity can naturally occur in groundwater, but water companies still must provide treatment if the levels are too high.

Water company director Greg Ginyard, who also is the mayor of Jenkinsville, said he’s complied with any DHEC requests, the water meets safe drinking water standards, and the system has received awards for its efforts. He said his utility is being unfairly characterized by the media.

Ginyard said the message he wanted the law firm to send Goins was “not to make up lies. It is to tell the truth about what is going on. Everything we do is above board. We have nothing to hide.’’

Goodwyn, the attorney, said the water company is not trying to prevent Goins from voicing general concerns. Rather, the company does not want her to raise specific charges that the water has sediment in it. The water company has retained both the Goodwyn law firm and a public relations firm in light of questions about the water.

“The point of the letter is not to say ‘Hey, don’t voice any concerns that you have,’’’ he said. “But when she’s making affirmative statements that there is a specific problem with the Jenkinsville Water, and that’s not true, that’s a problem.’’

Jenkinsville officials said in a March 28 letter to customers that the company has been subject to “incomplete and sometimes erroneous reporting by a few local media outlets.’’ It did not name the outlets or specifically state what the problems were. Both The State and the Independent Voice, a weekly newspaper from Blythewood, have written about Jenkinsville’s difficulties.

The letter to Jenkinsville customers said the water is fine and there are no current state enforcement actions pending against the company. The company’s message to customers suggested that large utilities want to take over the Jenkinsville system. Goins and Ginyard disagree on whether a regional water system should replace the small one now serving Jenkinsville.

“Unfortunately, bigger water systems sometimes want to take over companies like ours that serve a smaller, rural demographic,’’ the board’s letter to customers said. “In the interest of keeping your water affordable and providing 24/7 customer service, JWC has no interest in being absorbed by a bigger water system.’’