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Black Ohio neighborhood unjustly denied water for decades, jury finds

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A federal jury awarded residents of a mostly black neighborhood in rural Ohio nearly $11 million Thursday, finding that local authorities denied them public water service for half a century because of their race.

The plaintiffs, 67 residents of an unincorporated community in near Zanesville, Ohio, known as Coal Run, were awarded damages ranging from $15,000 to $300,000, depending on how long they have lived in the neighborhood. The money covers pain and suffering inflicted on the residents from 1956, when water lines were first laid in the region, to 2003, when the neighborhood finally got public water. During that time, some Coal Run residents trucked in water from elsewhere, as local wells were contaminated with sulfur from abandoned coal mine shafts. Others dug wells anyway. Some collected rain.

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The US 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.

The Columbus Dispatch describes the childhood of Freddie Martin, who grew up in Coal Run.

As a child, Martin's parents would fill the bathtub and not change the water until five of the 10 children in the family had bathed in order to conserve the water trucked in to the cistern. Martin was awarded $200,000 in damages.
Martin wished his mother, who lived on Coal Run her whole life, was alive to see the outcome of the lawsuit. He said she was looking down and saying, "Well done."

Lawyers for Zanesville and Muskingum County said they would file an appeal. The Associated Press quotes Mark Landes, the attorney for county and water authority, who says that about half of Muskingum County residents, who are 96 percent white, are not connected to the public water system even today. Those without public water service include county commissioners and judges.

"This was a case that was started and fired by out-of-town lawyers who saw an opportunity for a cash settlement," Landes told the AP.

The plaintiffs say that the reason for the lawsuit was not money, but justice. The Newark (Ohio) Advocate quotes Kathleen Hill, 94, who lived in Coal Run for 39 years. She said 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."