A federal jury awarded residents of a mostly black neighborhood in rural Ohio nearly $11 million Thursday, after finding that local authorities denied them public water service for 50 years because of their race.
According to the AlterNet Web site, the plaintiffs, 67 residents of an unincorporated community near Zanesville, Ohio, also known as Coal Run, were awarded damages ranging from $15,000 to $300,000.
The money covers pain and suffering inflicted on the residents living in the predominately African American neighborhood from 1956, when water lines were first laid in the region, to 2003, the year the neighborhood finally got public water. During that time, Coal Run residents were forced to track in water as local wells were contaminated with sulfur from abandoned coal mine shafts. Other residents collected rain and used it as drinking water.
The residents initiated the case after repeated requests, over several decades to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) for public water service. Each request to the city, county, and township public water service authorities was denied. However, during that time period, similar requests for public water service were granted and made available to white families located further away.
“This decision speaks firmly about the importance of treating citizens with equal respect, regardless of race,” said Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers who prosecuted the case. “We are pleased that relief was provided to those who suffered as a result of discrimination,” she said in a statement released to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
The U. S. District Court jury found that the city of Zanesville, Muskingum County, and the East Muskingum Water Authority violated state and federal civil rights laws by failing to provide Coal Run residents with access to public water, a service that was provided to white residents in surrounding areas.
Steve Schmidt, assistant attorney general in the civil rights section of the OCRC, said on their Web site “I remember being in the kitchen of one of the residents when the water service started and thinking this is why I went to law school.”
The plaintiffs say that the reason for the lawsuit was not money, but justice. Kathleen Hill, 94, who lived in Coal Run for 39 years, told The Newark Ohio Advocate that she was denied water because of the color of her skin.
“I don’t know if discrimination will ever end,” Hill said. “But this is a good thing today.”