Her legal settlement with the city and county of Dickson, Tennessee, capped a long legal battle waged by NRDC and the Holt family. "Before this, I assumed that clean water was available to all," says Holt-Orsted. "I hope this case sends the message that it should be."
Holt-Orsted's crusade began in 2003 with the terrible news that her father, Harry Holt, had been diagnosed with cancer, which was followed a short time later by her own diagnosis. They weren't alone. A startling number of neighbors in their predominantly African-American community
were also suffering from some form of disease. Trichloroethylene (TCE), a highly toxic industrial chemical known to cause cancer, had been dumped for decades in an unlined landfill nearby.
Through determination and persistence, and grieving the loss of her father in 2007, Holt-Orsted discovered that TCE had seeped into her family's well. Moreover, she learned that government officials had known of the contamination since 1988 but waited more than a decade before switching the family over to municipal water -- all the while assuring the Holts that their well water was safe to drink. Other locals were receiving a different message: A number of white residents had been warned of the danger and put on municipal water years earlier.
"Sheila proved that one person can change the system," says Michael Wall, senior attorney with NRDC's Environmental Justice program. "Thanks to her, the people of Dickson County will not have to fear they will be poisoned when they turn on the tap."