Politics & Government

South Carolina’s bad drinking water catches attention of presidential candidates

Bad drinking water in poor South Carolina communities has caught the attention of three Democratic presidential candidates as they stump the state for votes.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts each have made statements in the past 10 days about the perils customers of small drinking water systems face across South Carolina. They stopped short of offering specific solutions but said the issue of substandard water needs attention.

Earlier this week, Harris sent out a tweet saying small communities need protection from contaminated water, specifically referencing a recent investigative story by The State newspaper that described drinking water threats small utilities place on customers.

Harris, a former attorney general in California, compared the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., a city of 100,000, to concerns about lead in small South Carolina drinking water systems, many of them in poor, out-of-the way places. Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in young children who are exposed, even in small amounts.

“It shouldn’t matter how much money you have or what neighborhood you live in. Everyone deserves clean water,’’ her tweet said. “We saw this story play out in Flint. Now, we’re seeing reports in South Carolina. Enough is enough. We need action now.’’

In a five-day series published earlier this month, The State reported that small drinking water systems are having a harder time providing basic service — such as keeping bacteria out of the water — than large metropolitan water systems. Hundreds of small water systems have repeatedly violated safe drinking water laws and failed state inspections, the newspaper found. At least 41 small water systems have had lead show up at unsafe levels since 2011, The State reported.

State regulators also rarely fine small water systems much, if anything, for violating safe drinking water laws, The State reported.

In a speech eight days ago in Charleston, Sanders said many people in South Carolina depend on small water systems that are failing, but that needs to change. Small water systems serve pockets of people, but collectively, provide service to about 800,000 South Carolina residents.

“It’s not a radical idea to say people should have clean water when they turn on their taps,’’ Sanders said.

On Friday, the Warren campaign said small drinking water systems need help, pointing to problems in the city of Denmark and other South Carolina communities where local utilities have struggled to provide clean water to customers. Denmark residents have complained for years about discolored and foul-smelling water. The city has been in an uproar since residents learned in 2018 that municipal officials injected an unapproved, slime-killing chemical into the water for 10 years, without their knowledge.

“Elizabeth has followed the reports from Denmark and is deeply concerned that many more South Carolina communities could be exposed to contaminated drinking water,’’ her campaign said in response to questions from The State. “She believes, like many of the infrastructure issues in rural communities, that small drinking water systems have been ignored or neglected for too long and that it’s critical that we take action now.’’

Warren’s staff said she’ll use the campaign to talk about South Carolina’s drinking water challenges.

“She will continue to use her campaign platform to speak up for our small towns and rural America, and addressing access to clean drinking water for every South Carolinian will be a top priority in a Warren administration.”

Small utilities across the country face difficulties providing clean drinking water as pipes grow older and systems begin to wear out. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Carolina, a state with thousands of small drinking water systems, ranging from those serving trailer parks and country stores to small cities.

Unlike big utilities, small ones often don’t have the money, the expertise or the political will to upgrade water systems.

How to resolve problems in small water systems remains the big question in South Carolina.

The state has several programs to aid small water systems through grants and loans, and in some cases, those programs have helped. But many small water systems have found difficulties tapping into the money. Some systems, for instance, don’t have the money to pay off low-interest loans, even at rates as low as 1 percent, studies have shown.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has encouraged the consolidation of many small water systems into larger regional systems, but relatively few have done that.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.