Attorney disputes JWC lawsuit against councilwoman

JENKINSVILLE – Fairfield councilwoman Bertha Goins plans to fight a defamation lawsuit filed by the Jenkinsville Water Company, an organization whose water quality she’s criticized in the past, her attorney said Tuesday.

“I don’t think there’s a direct statement that would rise to the level of necessitating a lawsuit by a public entity against a private individual,” said attorney Tommy Morgan, who is representing the Fairfield County councilwoman.

The JWC filed suit on March 4, seeking unspecified actual and punitive damages.

No court date has been set, though the parties have until September 30 to complete any pretrial mediation. Morgan said Goins plans to defend against the suit.

“It’s unfortunate that Ms. Goins is being singled out by a public entity such as the Jenkinsville Water Company for raising concerns that many individuals throughout the community have had as to the quality and safety of the drinking water,” Morgan said.

Government suing a citizen complaining about the government is inappropriate.

Jay Bender, Media Law Attorney

JWC attorney Jeff Goodwyn, an attorney representing the water company, said Goins’ statements that the water is “substandard” and that “there is sediment in the water” are untrue.

“The above-referenced statements are false, defamatory and impugne [sic] the good reputation Jenkinsville Water Co. has with respect to the quality of its water,” the suit states.

Goins also implied, according to the suit, that there is a “casual connection” between her husband’s medical conditions and JWC water.

“Defamatory statements have never been protected by the First Amendment,” Goodwyn said. “She said the water had caused her husband to be ill, which is not true. There’s no evidence at all of that.”

Morgan said Goins never specifically attributed her husband’s illness to Jenkinsville drinking water.

“She has questioned and wondered about that, but so have many other individuals,” Morgan said. “There’s never been an outright declaration that this is the sole cause of her husband’s illness.”

The suit also states that Goins would not allow representatives of the S.C. Department of Environmental Control (DHEC) to test her water.

“She no longer lets DHEC test her water for some reason,” Goodwyn said. “They identified themselves as DHEC workers coming to test her water. She didn’t say ‘next time, make sure you have proper identification.’ She just said ‘don’t test my water anymore.’”

Morgan said the DHEC official showed up unannounced and without identification, raising concerns about trespassing and personal safety.

“We all read in the news about people claiming to be police officers and trying to pull people over,” he said. “I’m not quite sure how the Jenkinsville Water Company knows what DHEC was or was not doing on Ms. Goins’ property.

“If DHEC would like to come out, we’d be more than happy to make the arrangements,” Morgan continued.

“A little bit of advance notice, a courtesy heads up, would probably go a long way.”

Jay Bender, a media law attorney specializing in First Amendment issues, but not part of the case, doesn’t think the suit has merit. He said criticizing government activity is constitutionally protected free speech.

“This was a special purpose district created by the General Assembly,” Bender said. “That makes it part of the government, and the government suing a citizen complaining about the government is inappropriate.”

The JWC calls itself a private entity in the litigation. However, in 2011 the S.C. Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that the water company is a public body.

Additionally, during the early 1970s, the JWC received a series of startup loans and grants from state and federal sources.

The January 14, 1976 edition of the News and Herald (Winnsboro) includes a story about state lawmakers presenting $20,000 in grant money to the JWC. The story notes the JWC had also received a $130,000 loan and a $38,500 grant from the federal government.

And there were other government grants over the years, including a $240,000 grant from the Midlands Central Council of Governmnts JWC applied for on Aug. 19, 2014 to cover cleanup costs after JWC received a Notice of Violation from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) for high levels of radium in well 15 on Clowney Road. County Council facilitated that grant by signing off on it.

That makes the JWC a public body, Bender said.

“You can stand up on the Statehouse steps and say these guys don’t know what they’re doing, and their water tastes bad, smells bad and looks bad,” he said. “That’s protected.”

The lawsuit calls significant attention to state and national awards the agency says it has won, including awards for best tasting water in the state in 2017 and 2019.

In reality, only four or five of more than 240 eligible water providers actually entered the state water tasting contest sponsored by the S.C. Rural Water Association, a non-profit trade association to which the JWC belongs.

Amy Kinard, the association’s events and marketing coordinator, previously told The Voice that the association doesn’t require contest participants to authenticate the source of the water samples they submit.

“We give them the benefit of the doubt. We take them at their word. They’re members of our organization,” Kinard said. “Whoever wants to can bring their water samples [to the annual meeting] and they are judged on taste, clarity and a few other things.”

Morgan said results of a trade show contest aren’t as telling as government testing, which found multiple violations in recent years.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has cited the JWC at least five times since 2010. Most recently, last July, DHEC cited the water company after tests detected radioactivity in water samples, agency documents state.

“You can ask my kids, and they think the best food in the world is chicken nuggets and fish sticks,” Morgan said. “Tasting water is nothing more than an opinion.”

He also questioned the authenticity of the JWC water samples.

“We can’t even be sure that the water that [the JWC] presented actually came from their water system,” he said. “There’s just no way to even verify the water came from the Jenkinsville water system.”

Goodwyn disputed any assertions that the JWC used water from another source.

“Jenkinsville Water Company didn’t do that,” he said.

Former Councilman Kamau Marcharia, in whose district the Town of Jenkinsville lies, said from the dias in 2014 (referring to JWC’s water), “I’ve heard that water is real bad and some peoples’ dogs have become extremely ill from drinking that water,” Marcharia said. “I haven’t heard anything about an individual being sick or having to go to the hospital, but I wouldn’t trust it.”