Politics & Government

SC town’s water system is failing. Bernie Sanders says he can help

State inspectors continue to find problems in the drinking water system in Denmark, a small city that is gaining national attention from presidential candidates over its failure to safeguard the water.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders plans a town hall meeting Saturday in Bamberg County to discuss Denmark’s water troubles — and Sanders should have plenty to talk about when he arrives.

The S.C. Department of Heath and Environmental Control recently issued a violation notice against Denmark after giving the water system low marks following two different inspections.

The inspections noted poorly maintained water tanks and vultures roosting on the tanks, both of which could eventually contaminate water. In at least 14 instances, the city has failed to test parts of the system to ensure pollution doesn’t seep into pipes. Voorhees College and a middle school were among those served by Denmark where the testing was not conducted in 2018 and 2019, enforcement records shows.

This year’s poor grades follow an inspection in 2018 that said the system needs to improve. Records show Denmark has failed to fix problems identified in past DHEC inspections.

Despite concerns about the Denmark water, testing conducted last month by DHEC did not find unsafe levels of contaminants, ranging from bacteria to nitrate and manganese, according to an April DHEC report. A DHEC study last year also did not find unsafe contaminants in the drinking water.

That’s good news, but pollution could seep into the system if Denmark doesn’t improve the way it runs the waterworks, DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said.

“They have had previous violations they have not taken care of,’’ Crosby said. “Over time, if the violations are not taken care of, you could see impacts to water quality.’’

Mayor Gerald Wright, who has said the water is safe, was not available Tuesday afternoon for comment. Denmark, which provides water to more than 5,000 people, is located in Bamberg County about an hour’s drive south of Columbia.

Many Denmark residents complain of dark-colored and foul-smelling water flowing from their kitchen sinks.

In 2018, residents learned that Denmark had been injecting a little-known chemical into their drinking water for 10 years. That chemical, called Halosan, was supposed to kill slime in a distribution well, but Clemson University ordered Denmark to stop using the chemical because it had not been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water systems. The Halosan injections and other troubles in Denmark have sparked two lawsuits against the city.

Since The State reported on troubles in small drinking water systems across South Carolina, Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the need to improve conditions for people who get water from these systems. The State’s series found that many small drinking water systems have trouble complying with state and federal clean water laws, imperiling the water their customers depend on. At the same time, state regulators often go easy on small water systems when they find problems.

Small water systems serve mobile home parks, small cities, convenience stores and neighborhoods across South Carolina. Collectively, about 800,000 people get drinking water from a small utility, The State reported in March.

Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have mentioned the problems of small drinking water systems since the newspaper’s series ran in March.

Now, Sanders plans a town hall meeting that would include a panel discussion with community activists and others over the city’s drinking water woes. The topic of the forum is the Denmark “water crisis,” according to an email from the Sanders campaign. The Vermont senator favors increased funding for small water systems, a spokesman said.

“The water will lead to a discussion of the lack of infrastructure in rural communities, and the need for funding resources, so that local communities have the power to not be in a situation that Denmark finds itself in,’’ said Sanders campaign spokesman Kwadjo Campbell.

Among those on the panel are state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, and Deanna Miller Berry, a community activist and leader in efforts to improve Denmark’s water. Filmmaker Josh Fox, whose movie “Gasland’’ took a critical look at the natural gas industry, has been invited, according to Sanders’ campaign. Bill McKibben, who founded a grassroots effort to address climate change, also has been invited, the campaign said.

The meeting is to be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Denmark Tech.

Miller Berry said Denmark’s problems are part of a national issue with small drinking water systems. Presidential candidates can help get the word out about Denmark’s drinking water problems, while also formulating plans by the federal government to resolve problems in small water systems across the country, she said.

She said she’s supporting Sanders for president, but hopes many presidential candidates visit Denmark to discuss the low quality drinking water residents have endured for years.

A rally is planned May 25 in an effort to gain more attention about Denmark’s drinking water.

“I would love to have every single presidential candidate to come here,’’ Miller Berry said. “Somebody is going to be president. We need to know what are they going to do.

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.