DENMARK — The water is rotten in the city of Denmark. 

That's what some residents and advocates claim: They tell stories of brown-tinted water, odors of sulfur or sewage, dulled clothes coming out of washing machines and sediment pouring out of faucets into bathtubs. 

Many in this small town about 20 miles southwest of Orangeburg have opted to stop drinking public water completely. They're looking to bottled water or a nearby spring instead. Some, such as Pauline Brown and Eugene Smith, have been decrying the quality for years; others stopped drinking the water only recently, after the issue gained its largest notoriety yet in a documentary on CNN. 

In reality, nobody knows just how bad the situation is because it's never happened before. What is clear is that residents are losing confidence in their city. 

For 10 years, the city used a disinfectant called HaloSan in one of its four drinking water wells. The chemical has been used to clean pools and hot tubs but is not approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Its use is at the center of two class-action lawsuits pending against the city. 

Meanwhile, residents of Denmark still have little information to help them make a new and difficult choice: How much of this water can they stand to come in contact with?

Resident Marcus Wheeler said that he didn't take the issue seriously until recently. But his sister, Shantel Moncrieft, hasn't even been using it to brush her teeth.

She stopped using the public supply four years ago, Wheeler said, when she was diagnosed with lupus, an unpredictable autoimmune disease that can be difficult to manage.

When Moncrieft started, Wheeler said he thought not brushing with the water was "extreme."

"I used to tease her all the time," he said, "then she was right, the whole time." 

No confidence

It's unclear exactly what health effects HaloSan has when consumed in water over a long term. An EPA assessment from 2007 suggests it could cause eye and skin irritation, one of the symptoms some residents in Denmark have described. 

But the fact that it was used in only one of the city's wells adds even more ambiguity to the situation, because it's not clear who in town would have received water containing the chemical or its byproducts, said Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech. 

Aside from possible health risks, the biggest risk of using a chemical like HaloSan is creating a breakdown in public trust, said Edwards, who was at the forefront of uncovering the recent water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan.

If there's no confidence in the system, then the users can attribute any and all of their ailments to it, whether or not the water is really the cause. 

"More often than not, it's not a health issue," Edwards said. "It's just annoying, expensive water that’s undermining trust between the government and the people, quite frankly because (city leaders) weren't being honest about it."

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John Nimmons unloads a case of water for residents of the town of Denmark at the Denmark Furniture store during a water distribution drive Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The well that was treated with the chemical was taken offline last summer. Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright has consistently asserted the city's water is safe to drink.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has taken the step of putting its own test results on a website, and spokesman Tommy Crosby said the agency is offering free in-home water sampling to any concerned Denmark resident.  

Nonetheless, Edwards has found in some of the brown water elevated levels of lead, which hovered around EPA limits. Lead isn't safe for human consumption in any amount, however.

As Edwards has worked with Smith, Brown and other residents concerned about water quality, he eventually asked to test the drinking water wells directly, but the city denied his request. 

"We got a regular, routine method of testing, and that is done through DHEC," Wright said. "They have qualified competent staff and so we’ve — we’re covered, and the water is fine."

When Wright was asked Tuesday why it would be a problem to allow an outside scientist to test the wells, he told The Post and Courier he would not answer any other questions on the matter and referred other questions to the city attorney, who did not return a phone message.

One suit alleged the city has been poisoning its residents, and the other claims they should be reimbursed the fees they've paid for water of dubious quality.

In its responses to the two class-action suits, the city has broadly denied the claims that it is harming residents' health and that it is overcharging residents for water. In both suits, the city blamed discolored water on the plaintiffs' faulty plumbing. 

'Citizens helping citizens'

Some in Denmark have resorted to buying the water they drink and cook with, but many others rely on a nearby natural supply, God's Acre Healing Spring in Blackville, about a 20-minute drive away. 

Debra Stephens, 50, goes to the spring fairly frequently. She lives in nearby Williston, and her home is hooked up to city water there, but she still prefers the taste of the water that bubbles out of a network of pipes jutting about a foot out of the ground.

Her daughter, Zakaya, helped her fill empty juice jugs to take home on a trip last Thursday. Zakaya used to live in Denmark and scrunched her nose at the thought of the water there. 

Stephens' elderly mother still lives in the small Bamberg County town and can't leave her home easily because she's disabled. Some of her daughter's haul from the springs went back to her.

"It's bad down there, I'll tell you," Stephens said.

One other option has been the water distributions organized by several groups, including Denmark Citizens for Safe Water.

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Volunteers unload cases of water to residents of the town of Denmark at the Denmark Furniture store during a water distribution drive Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Organizer Deanna Miller-Berry, who is also a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, helped run a string of distributions Thursday. She first delivered water to local schools and then handed out bottles to residents from the back of Denmark Furniture, which offered up its space for the events. 

"This is citizens helping citizens," Miller-Berry said as she streamed live from the site under an overcast sky. A few feet away, residents showed their driver's licenses to claim a share of the water, five packages per household. 

Miller-Berry, who unsuccessfully ran against Wright in the city's last election, said that a natural support system of volunteers has popped up to help with each distribution. Thursday marked the group's fifth, and organizers were planning a rally on the water issue on Jan. 26.

"I don't even have to call them, when they see it, and they hear about it, they're coming," she said.

But for some, the community group's work may not be enough. 

Kasandra Jones, who waited in line wearing a pair of pink flamingo slippers, said she's contemplating moving away when her 6-year-old daughter finishes school later this year. 

Jones has lived in Denmark for three years, but she said she doesn't want her daughter to get sick, and she's frustrated that the city government continues to charge for a utility most people have lost faith in. 

"This ain't right, this ain't fair to these people living in this town. And then they knew it was messed up anyway, they (should've) told somebody," Jones said. "You don’t keep secrets."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.

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