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'Water from the heavens': South Carolina pastor's crusade for clean drinking water

For decades, many of the residents of Florence, South Carolina, have been forced to boil their water in order to simply drink it.
South Carolina State Rep. Robert Williams, left; Xavier Boatright of All Aboard for Justice; Mayor of Florence Teresa Myers Ervin; Dr. Florence Anoruo of South Carolina State University, Rev. Leo Woodberry, pastor, Kingdom Living Temple; Colin Goddard, director, SOURCE Global at the church's initial installation of hydropanels.
South Carolina State Rep. Robert Williams, left; Xavier Boatright of All Aboard for Justice; Mayor of Florence Teresa Myers Ervin; Dr. Florence Anoruo of South Carolina State University, Rev. Leo Woodberry, pastor, Kingdom Living Temple; Colin Goddard, director, SOURCE Global at the church's initial installation of hydropanels.Seth Johnson

In the 20 years since she moved to Florence, South Carolina, Carolyn McMillan said she has shunned consuming water from her faucet at home.

She uses bottled water for drinking or cooking.

“No other choice,” McMillan, who is Black, said. Water from the faucet “doesn’t taste right. I tried it a long time ago. Once. That was enough. Sometimes it’s cloudy. It’s stinky, smelly. I have boiled water to cook. It’s a mess.”

McMillan, from Brooklyn, New York, says she has managed her water like this for so long that it has become routine, like saying her prayers before bed.

“It’s frustrating,” she added. “And I know it’s been making people around here sick. It’s a problem for a lot of us.”

The dearth of clean water in much of Florence, which is 47 percent Black, located about an hour northwest of the coastal resort town of Myrtle Beach, illustrates a national environmental crisis in America, especially for Black people in low-income rural communities.

Leo Woodberry, pastor of the Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, is unwilling to wait any longer on government assistance and has launched a crusade to make clean water in his community — out of thin air.

Woodberry combined funds that were saved and money that was raised to acquire four solar hydropanels for $20,000 that are placed around his church. The technology uses sunlight and air to make clean water.

A hydropanel.Courtesy SOURCE Global

He calls it “water from the heavens.”

“This is important because Black people have been beaten down and under assault on so many fronts,” Woodberry said. “We’re harder hit by Covid-19. Forty percent of Black businesses that shut down since the pandemic are not coming back. We’re still being shot in the streets and in our homes. Clean water in communities of color should not be an issue, but it is. There’s so much that we’re dealing with, and to be able to come up with community-based solutions is important to show that we can move ourselves forward.”

The years long saga of Flint, Michigan, to achieve untainted, clean water drew national attention — and led to nine criminal indictments, including one against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. But while the spotlight was on Flint, countless communities across the country were experiencing similar or worse conditions — and still do.

Often, Florence residents are advised to boil their water for at least one minute to assure its safety. City officials said there has been no confirmed contamination of the system. But its infrastructure is compromised, leading to frequent water cutoffs or a loss of pressure, which elevates the potential for bacteriological contamination, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control officials said. 

The department requires the city to issue boil-water advisories when an event occurs that allows the possibility for bacteria to enter the water system. This occurs too often, residents contend.

Woodberry’s desperation to provide clean water for Florence received a boost when Xavier Boatright of the environmental organization All Aboard For Justice, attended a demonstration of solar hydropanels in Denmark, South Carolina. It was led by Colin Goddard of Source Global, a renewable energy company that produces solar-powered hydropanels that use sunlight with technology to draw water out of the air’s moisture. Each panel is about 4 feet by 8 feet and can hold up to 30 liters of water. The panels store and mineralize the water, which is then filtered and runs into the homes or businesses to which it is connected.

Boatright introduced Woodberry to Goddard and the pastor soon began partnerships with All Aboard for Justice and the New Alpha Community Development Corp. Four hydropanels are connected to the church and are producing 120 liters of water per day. The goal will be to use hydropanels and other technologies to provide clean water for Florence. 

Source Global CEO Cody Friesen said that the issues with clean drinking water in America are “a broken infrastructure, lack of transparency of what you’re consuming and lack of convenience.”

“There are many, many people who have been left behind on a generational basis that are underserved,” he said. “Black communities are far more likely to have problems with their drinking water. The question is: Can we solve hard problems and create environmental justice with technology, create technology for social equity, create technology to lift people up? That’s what makes what we do so rewarding.”

And needed.

In February, a winter storm in Jackson, Mississippi,  brought freezing temperatures, affecting the infrastructure, crushing the water treatment plants, forcing a boil-water notice in the capital city and shutting down water. The notice for the full city was lifted last week. 

“Jackson is a travesty,” Friesen said. The federal government’s infrastructure spending is “working great in many major cities, but that belies the reality of many places where it’s not working.”

Like Florence.

“And it’s because we’re Black,” said Irene Fulmore, pastor of Christ the King Deliverance Ministry in nearby Timmonsville.

Her town’s water is so bad because of a poor water treatment facility that it now gets its water from Florence, which is itself not doing that well in the water department. 

“We get less funding for solving our problems. We can’t drink or use that water. It’s brown and smelly. We get bottled water by the jugs. It’s sad because there’s nothing being done.”

Woodberry is doing something. “He’s a hero,” Friesen said.

Since 2014, Woodberry has been maneuvering to address the water concerns in his town. The city passed a bill to move forward on renewable energy. and his connection to Source Global — and President Joe Biden’s commitment to “environmental justice” — give him hope that substantive change will come.

The hydropanels at his church are placed prominently, allowing community members to see them in action. Woodberry said he will lead a campaign to raise money to secure many more panels for the areas hardest hit.

He also plans to purchase land in Brittons Neck, a majority-Black community that uses well water. When hurricanes or major storms hit the state, well water is contaminated with pesticides and septic tank residuals, among other toxic matter.

“We want to build a water garden there for that community that uses well water because it cannot afford to get in the rural water system,” Woodberry said. “And it will create jobs. This is the work of the Bible. It says, ‘Replenish the earth.’ It was describing the original recycling program.”

Biden’s executive order in January promised to hold accountable sources of pollution that “disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”

Woodberry said this was an important step. 

“For us, this is a sustainable project,” he said. “As long as there is the sun and moisture in the air, we can produce clean water. This is the example of the community-based solutions the Biden administration should be supporting.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, from 2010-2016 the drinking water systems that regularly violated the law by not meeting its clean water standards were 40 percent more likely to serve people of color. 

Additionally, the environmental advocacy group, Clean Water Action said 75 percent of Black Americans are more likely to live near polluting facilities. A poll conducted last year by The Undefeated and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Black people are far more likely than whites to report disparities in environmental exposures (70 percent versus 40 percent) and substandard levels of medical care (54 percent versus 26 percent) as contributing factors for poor health.

Cynthia Gaskins, another Black resident of Florence, said she does not trust the water in her home. She has also not consumed water from her faucet in the 20 years she’s lived there. 

“I don’t even drink water that comes out of my refrigerator filter,” she said. “I have heard about this new water that Rev. Woodberry is helping make. I will give it a try. After all this time, it would be pretty amazing to have clean water come out of the faucet.”

The Source Global hydropanel water system is in 48 countries serving indigenous populations and many other places in the United States, including the Warm Springs Indian reservation in Oregon and the Navajo Nation. 

Friesen said the process to introduce hydropanel technology in different areas cannot be rushed. “It’s about understanding the community,” he said. “Starting small to go big. Starting slow to go fast.  Eventually, we want to bring the hydropanels to the entire community.”

McMillan, a retired social worker, said it may be difficult to stop using bottled water after so long. “But Rev. Woodberry told me, ‘When you try this water, you’ll forget all about that bottled water. It’s so delicious.’ I hope so. We need it. We’ve needed it for a long time.”

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