Bernie Sanders said what he saw in a Denmark, S.C., home was “hard to believe.”
Local residents Paula Brown and Eugene Smith showed the senator from Vermont jars of discolored water that came out of their tap, saying they haven’t felt safe drinking for 10 years.
“This is America in 2019,” Sanders told reporters after touring Brown and Smith’s home. “You would think the water coming out of your faucet would not be toxic.”
That was the basis of a town hall Sanders held at Denmark Technical College on Saturday in front of 195 people, many of whom have been dealing with the small town’s water issue for years.
Sanders’ visit is the latest in a string of 2020 candidates highlighting the plight of smaller water systems in South Carolina. In 2018, Denmark residents learned the city had been injecting the chemical Halosan into their drinking water for 10 years.
Halosan was supposed to kill slime in a distribution well, but Clemson University regulators 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, which distributes water to more than 5,000 people in rural Bamberg County.
Like the home Sanders visited, many Denmark residents complain of dark-colored and foul-smelling water flowing from their kitchen sinks. At Brown and Smith’s home, they use a rooftop water collector to avoid using the city water system entirely.
“When I was drinking my coffee, I didn’t know I was drinking Halosan at the same time,” Smith said.
Recently, the S.C. Department of Heath and Environmental Control issued a violation notice against Denmark after inspectors found poorly maintained water tanks and vultures roosting on the tanks. Inspectors say the city has also failed to test parts of the water system for pollution, including services to Voorhees College and a middle school.
“I pray they will hurry up and turn off the water fountains in the schools,” said Brown, before she took part in a panel with Sanders at his town hall. She told Sanders she hoped his administration would call up the National Guard to distribute water in Denmark.
Also speaking at the town hall was environmental activist Josh Fox, who directed the film “Gasland” about the use of “fracking” in the natural gas industry. He said Denmark’s problems are part of a national failure to maintain public infrastructure.
“Some pipes are 100 years old,” Fox said. “You can’t fix that by putting a chemical in the water. That will just make things worse, especially if you use a chemical that’s meant to clean pools.”
Sanders said he intends to make the country’s water infrastructure a priority. He criticized President Donald Trump for cuts at the EPA, and noted that, during his time as mayor of Burlington, Vt., the city spent millions on a new wastewater treatment plant.
“We talk a lot about climate change, but we’ve got to talk about this too,” Sanders said. “If you think this is just a South Carolina problem, you’re dead wrong. It’s an American problem.”
While campaigning in South Carolina, Sanders also called for a new education initiative that would target new investment in high-poverty school districts, a minimum starting salary for teachers of $60,000, and to “combat increasing segregation,” according to a campaign release, including a ban on federal funding for new charter schools.
Saturday’s visit to Denmark was part of a Southern swing for Sanders that included rallies in Asheville and Charlotte, N.C., on Friday and a town hall earlier Saturday in Orangeburg, where the senator unveiled an education plan. Later on Saturday, Sanders held a rally in Augusta, Ga., before heading to events in Alabama.
At the Denmark event, water was very much on residents’ minds. Tony Goodloe, a student at USC Salkehatchie, said he hopes more presidential candidates will talk about the state’s water issues.
“A lot of candidates just come in to say ‘hey’ and go,” Goodloe said. “I want to hear what they can do that applies to our rural communities, like on environmental issues, like on water, like on the effect climate change is having on rural farmers.”
Daniel Summers is a Denmark native who blames Halosan for health issues he’s experienced.
“You drink that water for two or three weeks and tell me how you feel,” Summers said. “I feel like I got hit by the Amtrak train, and I take good care of myself.”
Summers said he wants to see state and local officials held accountable for how the city’s water system has been managed.
“If they don’t have to answer for it now,” he said, “they will have to answer for it to that man Jesus.”