Denmark resident Pauline Ray Brown says she's been trying to bring attention to the poor quality of the city's water since 2009.
Brown's efforts brought a noted Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University civil and environmental engineer and his team of students and scientists to Denmark to test the water in the homes of several residents on Sept. 22, 2017. Now that group wants its scientists to test the city's wells, a request that has been denied by Denmark Mayor Dr. Gerald E. Wright. Wright's refusal to allow the group to test the wells made news across the state and region this week.
For years, Denmark residents have complained at city council meetings about the brown, dirty-looking drinking water coming from their faucets and the stains it leaves on their clothing after it is washed in the city water. The council is currently working on water system improvements, but it's been a slow process, Wright said Tuesday.
Some residents are not happy with the process. Brown and her husband, Gene, and resident Deanna Berry have been the most vocal about what they say is the “dangerous” city water. Berry posted on her Facebook page on Jan. 23 that she was hospitalized recently after contracting the E. Coli virus; she says she got it from drinking Denmark's water.
Wright said he doesn’t believe Berry contracted the virus from the water system in Denmark.
He said that shortly after he became mayor, he "laid out what I thought would be a good plan for cleaning up the water in Denmark. We got a new well and replaced and added a sufficient number of water hydrants.”
He said the city has gotten a number of grants to clean up the water, adding that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has stated that Denmark does not currently have a problem with its water.
For over eight months, though, Dr. Marc Edwards and more than a dozen students/scientists from Virginia Tech have studied Denmark’s water system. Edwards said the DHEC reports are fairly consistent with his.
“However, the limited sampling shows cause for concern. Lead is relatively high compared to other cities,” he said Wednesday.
“The discolored water that most consumers are seeing has levels of iron that exceed EPA secondary standards," Edwards added.
He said his group is concerned about high levels of iron and magnesium in the water, noting that DHEC’s samples are for other things. Edwards said DHEC shared a tiny sample from the city’s wells and that sample tells him the wells are the source of the poor water quality in Denmark.
"(Mayor Wright) has flip flopped three times on why he won’t let us test the wells. At first, he said it would be an insult to DHEC," the professor said.
Edwards said when he notified Wright that DHEC officials told him it was fine with them to test the wells, "The mayor still gave us an excuse."
He said the mayor questioned why he would want to waste money and question DHEC’s findings.
Edwards said he hopes to prove that Denmark's water is safe. He said his team is just a "broker" for the city's citizens and the testing it wants to do will not cost the city or its residents anything.
“I want to be clear about this. The water in Denmark is crappy and expensive. We are trying to figure out if its causing health issues," he said.
“Historically, Denmark’s water has had some serious problems," Edwards noted. "There is a legitimate cause for concern."
He agreed that in looking at the samples that DHEC took, ”the water is safe." But he said many people handle those samples. “The town takes the samples and sends them to DHEC. Mistakes, sometimes innocent and sometimes not, can happen,” the professor said.
While he has no reason to doubt DHEC's testing results, “I also don’t see a reason why we can’t independently verify the safety of the water on the behalf of the citizens," Edwards said, adding that said he sees the project as a “partnership."
“Our partnership found higher lead levels than DHEC, but the results are similar, and I am not disputing those,” he said.
Edwards said he has not seen any evidence that testing has been done for magnesium and iron in the city's water. While it’s not necessary for DHEC to test for either, “I believe they could be the source of the problem,” he said.
According to Edwards, one Denmark resident invested $4,000 to fix her plumbing because the town told her that the issue with the water was her problem.
“Misinformation and undermining trust are a waste of money,” he said.
Edwards noted that while his team did find higher levels of chlorine, bacteria, byproducts and disinfectant, their samples were similar to DHEC's.
“We want to sample the wells directly. Samples (the Virginia Tech's team took) from near one of the wells detected raw sewage," he said.
S.C. Housoe Dist. 90 Rep. Justin Bamberg is calling for the Denmark mayor to allow Edwards and his team to test the city's wells. Bamberg posted on open letter to Wright on Facebook on Tuesday in support of further testing by the Virginia Tech group.
“I am writing in regard to the News 12 (Augusta, Georgia) investigative report. I want to let you know that despite prior tests by DHEC, I am in support of allowing Dr. Edward’s team to independently test the city’s well water," the legislator stated on Facebook.
Bamberg went on to remind Wright that there have been longstanding water quality complaints from some citizens in Denmark, stating, “While there are varying explanations behind those complaints, nonetheless, we have succeeded in securing numerous funding grants over the last few years to fund water/sewer improvement projects within the city. Please reconsider your position and allow the requested testing to proceed."
Wright said Wednesday, however, that he believes the issues being raised are “much ado about nothing."