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Denmark's water through an EJ Lens

Bamberg County is the home and birthplace to some of South Carolina’s most remarkable people. Jim Harrison, Cleveland Sellers, Bakari Sellers, Drink Small (The Blues Doctor), Woody Binnicker and Ted Potter Jr. are only a few of the folks known for their extraordinary accomplishments from the town of Denmark in Bamberg County.

Recently, the City of Denmark has been making national headlines after an unregulated chemical, typically used to disinfect pools and spas, was revealed in the city’s drinking water supply. In an analysis of census data, environmental group All Aboard For Justice points to how Denmark’s water crisis disproportionately impacts underrepresented and low-income communities. This data could help highlight Denmark’s water crisis as an environmental justice issue.

The City of Denmark has the highest percentage of African-Americans among the state’s cities and towns, followed by Allendale, Estill, Marion and Orangeburg. Denmark has an African-American population of around 86 percent, with a total minority population percentage of 89 percent. Denmark’s minority population percentage is a staggering 55 percent higher than the South Carolina state average of 34 percent.

Nationwide, African-Americans are nearly 80 percent percent more likely to live in neighborhoods where pollution and toxic contamination pose a risk to public health, when compared to Caucasians.

Evaluating income statistics is also an important determining factor for environmental justice. People who live below the poverty line may live in housing with leaks, unsealed windows and compromised water supplies, all of which are factors that can increase residents’ exposure to harmful toxins. Denmark’s low-income population percentage soars around 62 percent, while the state average is 38 percent.

For 10 years, Denmark pumped unregulated doses of HaloSan into one of four public water supply wells in an effort to kill iron bacteria. Denmark’s public water system provides water to more than 3,000 people. Disturbingly, the exact amount of HaloSan injected into the system over the past decade remains unknown.

The Environmental Protection Agency has ultimate authority over the regulated use of disinfectants in drinking water supplies through its pesticide program. HaloSan is not a registered disinfectant with EPA’s pesticide program. City officials say they relied on recommendations from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Meanwhile, DHEC officials say they cannot recall who within the department recommended HaloSan. Bromochlorodimethylhydantoin (or BCDMH), the primary ingredient in HaloSan, is known to irritate people’s skin and eyes when used in drinking water, but there is still much to learn about the long-term health impacts of exposure. The state of North Carolina banned HaloSan in 2006 when the state's environmental regulators sited concerns about the buildup of potentially cancer-causing toxins associated with its use in private wells.

After a year of investigating, and requests for public records, regulators finally ordered Denmark to stop using HaloSan this past summer. The community has expressed concerns of lead and copper contamination in the water supply, and local doctors have found high concentrations of the metals in their patients’ blood. One of the nation’s leading water-quality researchers has compared Denmark’s water-quality issues to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, stating that chemicals like HaloSan should never be injected into drinking water.

“You can’t drink the water and even when doing laundry my white clothes are turned brown,” Moses Washington of Denmark said. “This is indeed an environmental injustice.”

Many people across the state hope lawmakers and DHEC will conduct extensive reviews to ensure that low-income and minority neighborhoods like Denmark get the same environmental protections and considerations as other communities in the state. lthough DHEC has no formal environmental justice policy, the department and state regulators must work harder to ensure environmental justice for Denmark and all communities in our great state.

South Carolinians from the Upstate to the Lowcountry were alarmed to learn that an unregulated chemical was dumped into a public drinking water system without stronger considerations about potential threats to public health. Folks in other cities and towns are concerned if DHEC has approved the use of HaloSan, or similar chemicals, to be used in other water systems around the state.

“Water is our most precious resource and chemicals like HaloSan should be a concern to everyone,” said Jonisha Ragin of Manning. “The people of Denmark drank their water for 10 years without being aware of this toxic chemical and that reality is unacceptable for anyone who lives in our state.”

December 6, The Times and Democrat


All Aboard For Justice!

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