Troubled Waters: Mayor of Denmark prohibits test on city wells

Published: Jan. 22, 2018 at 5:15 PM EST
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Monday, Jan. 22, 2018

(News 12 at 6 O'Clock / NBC 26 News at 7)

DENMARK, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- For years families living in a rural South Carolina town have complained about their water. They thought their voices were finally being heard after a Virginia Tech professor started testing the water in Denmark, that was until, the mayor stopped the team, from testing the city's wells.

Denmark, South Carolina. Population 3019.

Like many older towns in the south, it's infrastructure is beginning to show it's age. Gene and Pauline Brown began collecting jars of dirty water in their home more than a decade ago. Earlier this year, a team from Virginia Tech began testing their water, and others, in town. The team is lead by Dr. Marc Edwards, the professor who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. They found lead levels higher than federal standards in some of the homes they tested but levels are not high enough to grab the attention of the federal government.

"The percentage we had over the action level was twelve. They only allow ten but twelve and ten are close enough I can't say for sure folks in the city are for sure in danger," Dr. Edwards told Gene and Pauline Brown.

Dr. Edwards asked the mayor if his team could test the city's wells. Initially, the professor said that the mayor agreed to the testing.

Dr. Edwards: "I wanted to sample each of the town wells to make sure it was meeting federal safe drinking water standards. For whatever reason last week they called and said they would never let us sample."

Liz Owens: "Never?"

Dr. Edwards: "Right."

Liz Owens: "Any reason why?"

Dr. Edwards: "None was given. No."

A few days before coming down to Denmark, Mayor Gerald Wright told Dr. Edwards he would never allow his team to test the city's water.

Liz Owens: "Have you had this happen before where a mayor has denied you access to testing the city's wells?"

Dr. Edwards: "Never after they told us they could and we made plans to come visit."

Liz Owens: "That seems suspicious to me."

Dr. Edwards: "You can judge for yourself. I am just really disappointed for the residents here who really wanted answers."

Liz Owens asked Mayor Wright why he wouldn't allow Virginia Tech to test the city wells.

Mayor Gerald Wright: "I thought it would be a sort of an insult to the folks at DHEC to have him come behind them and to do the very test they recently done."

Liz Owens: "So you don't want to do it because you believe it would be insulting a state agency?"

Mayor Wright: "No, I didn't say that."

Dr. Edwards asked South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control if it would have a problem with him testing Denmark's water. DHEC emailed him back stating the agency doesn't mind. DHEC also emailed News 12's Liz Owens stating it has no objections and often collaborates with other organizations testing water.

The professor pushed record on his phone when he called the mayor to tell him DHEC didn't mind:

Dr. Edwards: "I have an email from DHECc where they told you they wouldn't be insulted if we came and sampled and per our last phone call you said you would view this in a different light if that was their opinion. I was checking to see if we could get permission to sample on Friday morning, the wells?"

Mayor Wright: "My position is still the same. We have full confidence in the program they have with monitoring and testing."

Dr. Edwards: "There is concern all around the country because many of these agencies who are entrusted to protect the public health are not sampling in the correct way contrary to what you might expect that was the problem we found in Flint, Michigan."

Liz Owens: "Citizens I've talked when they heard you wouldn't let him test say it looks like the mayor is trying to hide something and they question, even more, is our water safe?"

Mayor Wright: "Our water is safe. What I don't understand is why would anyone think we would not have safe water?"

But in 2010 the department of health and environmental control issued a consent order, telling Denmark to correct problems with its water. Two years later, the same agency found the water "unsatisfactory." It was raised to "satisfactory" last year. Mayor Wright says then the city shut down some wells and added two new ones. But Dr. Edwards wants to test all four of Denmark's wells especially this one. Less than a dozen yards from the city well is this broken sewage pipe. Dr. Edwards tested the water in the stream near the well. the results came back positive for E. Coli.

Liz Owens: "This has to be disappointing for you."

Dr. Edwards: "Well more disappointing for the residents in town because they want some resolution to this issue."

Denmark resident Deanna Berry is one of those wanting answers. Concerns about the water is one of the reasons she says she ran for mayor in the last election. Berry has been working with Dr. Edwards, and before that with Gene and Pauline Brown. "Confused, appalled, surprised and I am concerned. If you tell us one moment we can do something and then you turn right around a few days before we are supposed to come that we can't do then what are you trying to hide," Berry said.

Hours after interviewing Deanna, she became sick. She spent two days in ICU. Her lab test shows she had E. Coli. Dr. Edwards doesn't know if it's the same E. Coli stand he discovered near the city's well. He says the only way to know that is to test the city's wells.

Liz Owens: "There is a lot of concern because you won't allow him to do this, again to use their words, it looks like your hiding something."

Mayor Wright: "I'm not hiding anything. Those are my words."

While the mayor won't allow Dr. Edwards to test Denmark's water wells, the school board did vote to allow his team to test at the elementary school. What he found in an initial test was very high levels of lead. Dr. Edwards is coming back for more testing of the school's water, which again, is on the same water well system that Denmark's mayor says is safe.