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I-TEAM: Lawmakers: SC town with history of water problems shutting off residents' water during pandemic

Denmark's water supply has been the subject of controversy. (Source: WRDW)
Denmark's water supply has been the subject of controversy. (Source: WRDW)(WRDW)
Published: May. 28, 2020 at 11:06 AM EDT
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Thursday, May 28, 2020

DENMARK, SC (WRDW/WAGT) -- Two South Carolina lawmakers are pledging action after they say the town of Denmark resumed turning off water to customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Justin Bamberg released a joint statement on the issue, saying Denmark should not "put money or financial interests of government utility operations above a citizens’ right to basic necessities like running water and sewer."

"This is a public health matter, which has, should, and will always take precedent over financial ones," the statement said. "People must have the ability to wash their hands, take showers, flush their toilets, and other day-to-day things required for people to remain safe and sanitary during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic."

Denmark resident Amber Jackson woke up to no water Tuesday morning. Her 7-month-old granddaughter, daughter, and son-in-law live with her. He lost his job in March.

“I know with everything going on right now we can’t pay it," Jackson said. "They haven’t even started paying unemployment yet.”

Jackson says she called city hall and offered to pay part of the $266 bill.

“I called her and said, 'Is it possible to pay half now and half in a few days?' and she said no," Jackson said.

The Jackson family isn't the only family struggling, according to Deanna Berry, a Denmark water advocate.

”A large number of residents of Denmark, their water has been shut off without notice," Berry said.

Dozens of families began to reach out to Berry, who has been fighting for clean drinking water.

Denmark has been dealing with issues over its water system for years.

We reached out to Mayor Gerald Wright, who would not interview with us, but he did talk to us over the phone.

“We were relaxed in normal procedures and gave additional time for payment to be made," Wright said. "But at some point, it gets worse. So, we started just a couple days ago trying to get caught up with that. We did have some customers who had their water cut off because they were delinquent."

We asked how many people in town are without water. We sent Wright a series of questions, which he promised to answer, but never did.

Bamberg and Hutto never got an exact number either, but he estimates at least 100 families are without water.

State officials asked state and local agencies during the month of May to work with citizens who may have had trouble paying bills because of unemployment issues caused by the pandemic.

However, the state's Office of Regulatory Staff has no authority to push municipalities to grant leniency to water or power customers.

Denmark's move pushed ORS to release a statement as well to clarify their jurisdictional abilities.

"In terms of jurisdictional authority, the ORS has none as to municipal providers. Municipal utilities have their own customer notification and disconnection policies set and approved by a municipal board," Nanette Edwards, ORS executive director, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Hutto and Bamberg say they realize the pandemic has put a strain on municipalities when it comes to payment.

Bamberg estimates Denmark has lost about $50,000 in revenue due to unpaid water bills over the past few months, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to Orangeburg, which has lost about $1.6 million in unpaid water bills. However, Orangeburg has not disconnected anyone's water.

Bamberg and Hutto say work needs to be done legislatively to help. South Carolina recently received over $1 billion in federal aid to help with COVID-19.

"We are currently working on finding a solution that balances the absolute necessity of water services with the financial burden non-payments of bills place on the utility provider and other bill-paying members in that particular system," both lawmakers said.

Bamberg says Wright has agreed to stop disconnecting water for now, but it's not clear if those already disconnected would receive their water back.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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