Politics & Government

Utility steps up threat to sue unhappy customer. She says she’s telling the truth

South Carolina’s water crisis by the numbers

An investigation by The State found widespread problems with South Carolina's drinking water systems. Here is what you need to know.
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An investigation by The State found widespread problems with South Carolina's drinking water systems. Here is what you need to know.

A drinking water utility that has run into trouble with state regulators multiple times has stepped up its threats to sue a customer who criticized the quality of water piped to her home.

In a June 4 letter, a lawyer for the Jenkinsville Water Co. said the utility will take action against Bertha Goins for defamation if she doesn’t provide facts to back up her complaints or admit she has no evidence. The letter, written by Columbia lawyer T. Jeff Goodwyn Jr., gave Goins 10 days to respond.

“If Ms. Goins can not factually support her assertions as to each of these issues, JWC has instructed me to bring a defamation action against Ms. Goins,’’ according to Goodwyn’s letter.

Goodwyn’s letter was the second written in the past three months on behalf of the utility threatening to sue Goins over what the company says are false statements about muddy, sediment-filled water. The system, which serves about 2,500 people, says it is providing quality water to its customers.

But Goins said she has seen muddy water come from the tap at her home multiple times , most recently last week. The system is aging and needs improvement,, she told The State.

“I’m not recanting anything I said,’’ said Goins, a former Jenkinsville Water Co. board member who now serves on the Fairfield County Council.

Goins acknowledged that she does not have a jar of water or a picture to illustrate the problem, but she knows the type of water that has come into her home. Her criticisms of the Jenkinsville Water Co. are valid and truthful, she said.

“How are you going to tell me what I saw or didn’t see?’’ Goins asked. “You want to sue me for something I said I saw.’’

The dispute in Jenkinsville follows a series of stories in The State describing the difficulties small water systems have complying with safe drinking water rules. The newspaper’s series found that small systems have more trouble than large systems avoiding basic problems, such as bacteria in the water.

Often, small utilities don’t have the money or the expertise to avoid drinking water violations, but they are often reluctant to give up control to a larger system, The State reported.

Jenkinsville is among the small systems that have had difficulties, records show.

Since 2010, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has made four enforcement cases against the Jenkinsville Water Co. for various problems, including failure for days to notify customers of bacteria in the drinking water. The lack of notice in 2012 resulted in an unusually large state fine of $14,000 against the company.

The system, which serves a working class area 35 miles north of Columbia, also has had trouble with radioactive contaminants. Additionally, in 2017, the company ran into trouble with state regulators for failing to collect enough water samples for testing after finding bacteria, according to records obtained by The State.

Despite those issues, the company’s director, Jenkinsville Mayor Greg Ginyard, has said he maintains a quality system that has been maligned by the media and by Goins. He and Goodwyn say Goins has been a critic of the Jenkinsville Water Co. since losing her seat on the board and being on the losing side of one “contentious issue’’ the board dealt with.

Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney who represents newspapers on free speech issues, said the water company’s threats against Goins are misguided.

“I don’t see any possible way a governmental body can sue a citizen for complaining about governmental service,’’ Bender said.

“In a democracy, citizens are free to criticize the government,’’ he said. “When we lose that right, we’ve lost our democracy.’’

Jenkinsville’s Ginyard has said his water system is a private company, but a 2011 S.C. Attorney General’s opinion said it is a public body and is subject to the state’s open records law. The system was founded in 1970, with the first phase built five years later with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to an engineering report obtained by The State.

The three-page letter from Goodwyn to Fairfield County attorney Tommy Morgan says the Jenkinsville Water Co. has won awards for its service and is “currently in compliance’’ with the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The letter says the company has no information that anyone has ever gotten sick from drinking the water. At the same time, the system’s plastic pipes can’t create rust or impurities in the water because of their age, the letter said.

Goodwyn’s letter also said Goins has not made any direct complaint to the Jenkinsville utility about sediment-tainted or discolored water, nor has anyone else, in the past 10 years. Instead, she has made her criticism to media outlets, Jenkinsville representatives say.

Goins says she has called the company in the past about discolored water, but it did no good, so she stopped calling. She said threats of a lawsuit are attempts to keep her quiet.

The letter says the company wants Goins to acknowledge five things: that she has no scientific evidence that pipes are degrading water quality; no medical evidence her husband’s medical problems are related to Jenkinsville’s water; that she knows of nothing the company is trying to keep secret; she has no evidence of sediment in the water at her home; and the company’s water is not substandard.

“We are asking her to publicly concede that these facts she’s stated are not true or provide us the supporting evidence you have for these statements,’’ Goodwyn said. “It’s not defamation if it is true. I’m basically giving her a chance to prove what she says is true.’’

Goins said she won’t retract statements about problems in Jenkinsville’s water system. She also took issue with some of the characterizations the water company has made of her statements. She never said the Jenkinsville water has made her husband sick, only that she will “take action” if she learns that it has had an impact, Goins said.

“I know my words,’’ Goins said. “That’s why I try to speak truth.’’

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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