“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
Nineteen years ago this week we were settling into the reality that the species-ending, intercontinental ballistics hadn’t launched. The ATMs hadn’t spewed out currency into the streets. And if we’d been immersed in bacchanalian pre-extinction revelry on New Year’s Eve, convinced we were in the final scenes of civilization anyway and so plunged into whatever sort of venery made itself available to us, it was maybe with some sinking dismay that we rolled over the next morning and learned that our last existential hurrah hadn’t in fact been swallowed up in the destruction, but was just merely solidly lodged in the throat of the new millennium. And so in the bright dawn of January 1 2000, we met it like any other dull, non-apocalyptic year: by being promised nothing beyond the certainty of regret.
But maybe not for Elona Carolyn Davis, who was then serving as mayor of Denmark, a small town in central South Carolina. For Davis, the new millennium was full of possibility, evidently containing the promise of her being able to avoid any notice by state law enforcement of misappropriating the town’s municipal funds for personal use. Maybe, in her own private Y2K Hobbesian fantasy, Davis thought the Millennium Bug would wreak such havoc across computer networks that the town of Denmark would be forced to revert to some sort of primitive record keeping system, one by which she’d more easily dodge any prying budgetary oversight. And when it didn’t—when the Windows 98 startup screen synths swelled in reassurance—she apparently decided to take her chances anyway.
It didn’t pan out.
In 2002, the State Grand Jury charged Davis with public corruption, writing in its indictment, “Elona Carolyn Davis, from on or about January 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2001, willfully, dishonestly and with bad-faith and corrupt intent, engaged in acts and omissions of misconduct in office, and in the form of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, in violation of her duties of good faith, honesty and accountability in her role as mayor of Denmark.”
Following the indictment, the governor of South Carolina suspended Davis.
In the intervening years since Mrs. Davis served as mayor, the residents of Denmark have repeatedly borne the brunt of their elected officials dereliction of duties. The town is currently facing two class actions which are seeking restitution for residents who “purchased and consumed water that included a chemical that was not approved by the EPA and was not determined to be safe to people or the environment.”1 That chemical, HaloSan—which is part of a water treatment unit manufactured by South Carolina-based Berry Systems Inc.—is typically used to disinfect pool and hot tub water. According to Virginia Tech professor and civil and environmental engineer Dr. Marc Edwards, Denmark’s use of it in a public water supply is literally unprecedented.
If Dr. Edwards’ name rings a bell, it’s likely due to his critical role in exposing the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Last January—in an eerily similar and what must have been distressing reprisal—he coordinated with residents to visit Denmark and conduct independent tests at their homes to confirm what they’d long suspected was the compromised quality of their drinking water. When the faucet tests revealed the presence of lead that exceeded federal standards, Dr. Edwards inquired with the mayor’s office about doing further testing on the town’s four wells. The current mayor, Dr. Gerald E. Wright, denied the request, claiming at the time that any testing beyond what the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had already performed was reduntant and a ‘waste of money’, and that the issues being raised about the town’s water supply were “much ado about nothing.”
But while the DHEC testing only focused on pH levels, lead, and bacteria, the real issue—once it had been determined that HaloSan was being injected into the water—was whether or not the chemical met certification requirements under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide list (it did not), and if the city properly monitored the amount being administered into its water supply (no one can really say for sure). In light of the class actions that were filed late last year, the mayor has been forced to acknowledge the grim reality of the town’s being implicated in the creation of a public health hazard. However, in the customary pass-the-buck fashion of elected officials looking to save face in what may amount to actual felony charges, he points to the State’s Department of Health and Environmental Control as being culpable for not red flagging HaloSan, who in turn points to Berry Systems Inc., who in turn simply does not respond to news outlets’ requests for comment.
The big conceit at the center of U.S. political discourse about the environment is that it’s common to all of us. Because we all breathe air, and because we all drink water—so the macrologic goes—every citizen has a vested interest in the sort of public policy that demands sufficient government oversight of industry and adequate budget allocation for capital projects to maintain and update aging water infrastructure. And while that’s difficult to argue, talking about the implications of deregulation and austerity on the environment at only the most general and abstract level of the concept tends to overlook the dramatic, not even remotely equal ways in which we have been made to inhabit it.
Denmark is a town that is 92.6% black. Essentially all of the residents living below the poverty line are black (99%). And so the potentially deadly quality of the water there—like so many instances of environmental injustice within the U.S.—is exemplary in its embodiment of how the violence of privatized utilities paired with governmental neglect tends to get meted out so unevenly into the black community; how the sort of nightmarish public health consequences we regard with a sense of dread and urgency to stave off are ones that have in fact long beset American descendants of slaves (and been ignored by their public officials) specifically because of the group’s legacy of thoroughgoing economic exclusion having relegated them to zip codes that are too resource-strapped to effectively oppose the contamination taking place inside their communities.
Denmark is in the top 3% of the poorest zip codes in the entire state of South Carolina. It is part of the state’s Sixth District, represented by James Clyburn, a Congressional Black Caucus member who is the third-ranking democrat in the House of Representatives and who—just yesterday—was sworn into his new role as the House Majority Whip. Upon being elected to that position by the House Democrat caucus this past November, Clyburn pledged to “work tirelessly to be a voice for the millions of Americans who feel left out and communities that are too often left behind.”
It’s hard to think of a more obvious indication of having been abandoned than to be supplied bacteria-laced, chemically-toxic water, and to be forced to drive twenty miles round-trip to stock up on water just to brush your teeth with. And despite his solemn guarantee to be a champion for the marginalized, Clyburn has yet to issue a single remark on the ways in which he will work to ‘be a voice’ for his constituents in Denmark who are currently facing this exact predicament.
This reticence on the contaminated public water supply in his district is all the more striking considering that—within House leadership—Clyburn himself is regarded as something of an environmental justice maven. This past July, he was one of a dozen members from Congress to visit Flint, Michigan and survey the improvements being made after the House approved a $100 million aid package to assist with infrastructure repairs. In 2014 he received the Environmental Justice Pioneer Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and he also chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Environmental Justice Braintrust, an annual legislative conference which he has said he hopes will help people “see the connection between good health and a good environment,” and to realize that “whether or not the air we breathe is clean, the water we drink is safe, is dependent upon how we conduct ourselves regarding the environment.”
Thanks less to his ‘braintrust’ and more to the itchy skin, hair loss and burning sensations reported after drinking his district’s water, Rep. Clyburn can rest assured that his constituents in Denmark have an extremely vivid and firsthand understanding of the connection of which he speaks. In fact, over the past eleven years, two residents of the town have made that understanding—or rather, the local government’s failure to demonstrate that understanding—central to their campaigns to oust Gerald Wright from his position as mayor.
Patricia Anduze was the first to mount a mayoral challenge six years ago, citing how “people are always complaining about the water,” and how—despite state health officials determining that it was “basically unacceptable” and issuing the town multiple fines—Denmark continued to supply its residents with chemically-tinged water. Four years later, in 2017, Denmark local Deanna Berry ran against the mayor as a write-in candidate. Like Anduze, Berry had adopted the town’s decrepit water system as a core issue in her campaign. Aiming to bring new industries into Denmark as part of a revitalization effort, Berry then noted that “the current water system is not going to be able to satisfy the requirements for those industries to operate.” Wright defeated his opponents in both races, saying afterward “I would have much preferred not to have any challengers,” before adding that he felt he was “justified by the outcome.”
During Anduze’s campaign, she described a forlorn and beaten attitude among residents regarding any hope of improvements being made to the town’s water. “I’ve talked to so many people,” she said back in 2013, “and they all feel their concerns are falling on deaf ears. They think no elected officials care about them. They are so disillusioned. They’ve given up hope.” Six years have now passed since she fought to “make sure [Denmark’s] residents have a voice that is not only heard, but acted upon”—precisely the objective Congressman Clyburn vowed to undertake this past November—and yet, since then, the situation in Denmark has only further deteriorated, with residents continuing to feel the effects of reckless and negligent governance. Lamentably for them, Clyburn’s persistent silence on this multi-level failure of local government to ensure an extremely basic quality of life seems to confirm, rather than disprove, his constituents’ despair over their forsaken condition.
Just three months before Rep. Clyburn toured Flint—on the fourth anniversary of the city’s water crisis—then-Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cedric L. Richmond issued a joint statement with then-Secretary Brenda Lawrence. “It is shocking and shameful that residents in an American city have been without clean drinking water for four years. We must learn all there is to learn from this situation so it never happens again,” Richmond said. Concurring, Rep. Lawrence wrote, “The water crisis in Flint should be a real wake-up call to America. Many communities are one bad decision, one oversight, one mistake away from devastating consequences.”
Where is the CBC’s sense of outrage now? Is Denmark not an American city? Is it too small to really matter? Is the community there not already well past one bad decision, one oversight? Are they not living out the devastating consequences of all of those things at this very moment?
Thursday’s swearing-in of the 116th Congress marks the most robust presence of Congressional Black Caucus members in the House since its inception. It would seem, then, that if there were ever an auspicious moment for the “Conscience of the Congress” to act on the rhetoric that they routinely deploy in press releases and in media soundbites—that they are there for the most vulnerable and that they stand for environmental justice—that time would be now, while the black community of Denmark stands in Wal-Mart parking lots, handing out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water to their neighbors and petitioning the Governor to declare a state of emergency and provide relief to their town which is languishing in a government-made environmental calamity.
If Congressman Clyburn really is committed to a kind of crusade against injustice, then he would do well to look to his colleague Reps. Justin Bamberg (D, SC-90)—who is calling for special probe into the DHEC’s usage of HaloSan—and Terry Sewell (D, AL-7) who—after Yvette Carnell at Breaking Brown mobilized the black community at large to pressure Congresswoman Sewell to address the Lowndes County hookworm crisis occuring in her own district—continues to advocate on behalf of the community there, meeting with local officials and experts to determine a solution. And while both areas face a long, indeterminate road ahead, Reps. Sewell and Bamberg should absolutely be commended for showing up and speaking against the obscenity of environmental racism, the disgraceful and appalling result of a history of unredressed wrongs colliding with a present of total, outright municipal apathy. Because insofar as Sewell’s fellow members in the CBC earnestly believed that Flint needed to serve as a ‘real wake-up call’ for America, then their response to Denmark so far has been nothing more than an exercise in hitting the snooze button and rolling over.
1. One of which lawsuits was filed by the law firm of Bakari Sellers, a Denmark, SC native and former congressman for the state’s 90th District. Along with Rep. Justin Bamberg, his advocacy on behalf of the people there is really uplifting and encouraging, and there needs to be more of it.↩