In Denmark, S.C., Residents Fight For Clean Water
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, you just heard Gilda Cobb-Hunter talking about Tom Steyer's commitment to environmental justice. There's a small, predominantly black town about an hour outside the state capital that he often cites to explain why it's a priority, including in a debate.
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TOM STEYER: So I'm friends with a woman from Denmark, S.C., in Deanna Berry, who's fighting for clean water and environmental justice.
MARTIN: Deanna Miller Berry says the water in Denmark has been making people sick for years and that officials haven't done enough about it. So she started a group - Denmark Citizens for Clean Water. Democratic presidential candidates have taken notice, and some have even stopped by, including Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer. My producers and I drove to Denmark to meet Miller Berry, who was waiting for us as we pulled up to her house.
DEANNA MILLER BERRY: I've got to put my shoes on. I'm from the country. I don't like shoes.
BERRY: If I didn't have to wear shoes, I promise you, I'd be great.
MARTIN: She wanted us to see how the water situation is affecting people who live there, so she introduced us to Eugene Smith. He says he noticed something was wrong with the water back in 2009.
EUGENE SMITH: I started getting sick. I didn't know what was happening. Every time I'd go to the doctor, my blood pressure would be sky high. So my heart doctor said, well, listen. I'm going to send you to a kidney doctor. Sent me to a kidney doctor. Well, the kidney doctor found out that my kidney's failing.
MARTIN: His partner, Paula Brown, also experienced problems.
PAULA BROWN: Yeah, I started itching working out. My coat's getting brown. The house was smelling, like, real bad from the water being bad.
MARTIN: The couple showed us bottles and jars labeled with the dates and times they say they drew the water from their taps. The jars were filled with water that was brown, cloudy or had clumps of gunk floating around. Despite pleading with officials for help, they say the issues persist. Eugene Brown says Tom Steyer is the first candidate to give them hope something will change.
SMITH: He came here and he seen the water and seen what was going on - and ever since, he's on our side. And I'm telling you, he been doing good things for us, I'm telling you. You know, you get blessings in mysterious ways.
MARTIN: Because they've been dealing with this issue for so long, they found ways to cope. At the couple's home, there were dozens of gallon-sized bottles filled with clean water they collect from a spring about 20 minutes away, a trek the elderly couple has to make every couple of months. That leads us back to Deanna. She learned of these problems and decided to get involved, which we discussed when we all sat down to talk this week.
BERRY: In 2017, I ran as the mayor. I ran for the office of mayor here in the city. And they came to (laughter) one of my meetings with several binders about that big filled with information - said, what you going to do about this water problem? Well, I never knew there was a water problem. Turns out that they were right. The people that, you know, mocked them for saying that they were, you know, being foolish, they were just being extra - they really had a really valid concern. That's how I got involved. It was because they brought it to me.
MARTIN: And so this has been going on - they were telling us this has been going on since 2009. OK. So presumably - so now it's an election year. A whole bunch of people are coming through. Do you feel like they're actually going to do something about it?
BERRY: Not all of them. I just - let's just be completely real. I mean, like, think about the ones that came for just a moment. So you just come, give us water. But we need more than just bottles of water because, No. 1, water drives and water distribution are a lot of hard work. Like, who wants to seriously do this for the next couple of years until they figure it out?
No, we need solutions on the table now - realistic solutions that can be done. And because no one has presented any realistic solutions, we created our own. But there has been a candidate who not only showed up, but he stayed. And his presence remains by really providing solutions. None of the other candidates talked about solutions.
MARTIN: And who is that?
BERRY: Tom Steyer.
MARTIN: Is that Steyer?
BERRY: That's Tom Steyer.
MARTIN: Did you consider any other candidates?
BERRY: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was - look. I was a Bernie girl since 2016. I felt the Bern (ph).
SMITH: Me, too. Like I said, we are. We were.
BERRY: Look. You couldn't sell me on anybody else but Bernie. Like, try it and you might get your head cut off. All right. Real talk. But it comes to a point where you can like people all day long, but when it comes to getting a job done, you have to go with the people who can get it done.
MARTIN: What are some of, like, Steyer's specifics that have impressed you? You said he has got a plan. What is his - what - can you just give me one example of a specific plan that he's got?
BERRY: Day 1, declaring a national emergency on environmental justice and climate control - climate issues. So he's planned to dump large amounts of money into making sure that we fix and update infrastructure like we have here in Denmark. We still got infrastructure that's over a hundred years old that's got galvanized pipes, that's got asbestos and a whole bunch other stuff inside of it. That's what impressed me about Tom Steyer. It's his plan to declare a national emergency and do something about it on a national level because I don't just want to fix Denmark. I don't just want to fix Flint. We want to fix every city that's like that.
MARTIN: A lot of people are used to seeing this as, frankly, a racial issue. That's sort of the power structure being of a different demographic than the community, the people that lives here and being indifferent to the needs of the community. That's the - at least that's the way a lot of people see it here. Here, your representatives are the same demographic, aren't they?
BERRY: Black-on-black crime.
SMITH: Black-on-black crime.
BERRY: That's what I tell people all the time. It's an abuse of power, it's an abuse of power. You have a small community where not even the state officials are even looking into any of the complaints that all of these residents have had. So they know that no one's paying attention to the people no matter what they say. So they feel they can do what they want. And they've done it for so long, they've mastered it. But they forgot about one thing. They forgot that when the people get their voice, what do we do? And that's where they're at now.
MARTIN: So this is where I guess I feel like a lot of people think, oh, my goodness, you know, there's all these people coming to town. It's so annoying. They're all up in our face. They bring in all these microphones. For you, this has been - I'll use Mr. Eugene's word - it's been a blessing because the attention has been helpful. You feel like moving an issue forward that needed attention, right?
BERRY: It's a blessing because the people here have been praying for a long time, a very long time, not just to be heard, but so this can go away. What I think about is that mom who just had a baby and that baby's colicky in the middle of the night. She's pouring a bottle for her baby to make formula, and this goes into that bottle.
BERRY: And mom doesn't know it. And then that baby gets sick, and nobody knows why. This is a blessing because now we know why. So let's fix it.
MARTIN: That was Deanna Miller Berry, founder of Denmark Citizens for Clean Water. We also heard from residents Eugene Smith and Paula Brown. We've reached out to the mayor of Denmark and the governor's office for their comments, but we haven't yet received a response.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to the group Denmark Citizens for Safe Water as Denmark Citizens for Clean Water.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.