"Poster Child" for Environmental Racism Finds Justice in Dickson, TN

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

—Frederick Douglass (1855)

After a nine-year struggle, today Sheila Holt-Orsted and her family can finally put to rest their long battle for environmental justice in Dickson, Tennessee as their environmental and civil rights lawsuits against the City and County of Dickson were settled (more information about the settlement here).*

In 2007, Dr. Robert Bullard—widely regarded as the father of environmental justice movement—called the Holts’ struggle the “poster child” of environmental racism and toxic dumping in his landmark report Toxic Waste and Race at 20. The report pointed out that although Dickson County covers more than 490 square miles—an equivalent of 313,600 acres—the only cluster of solid waste facilities in the county is located directly adjacent to a small mostly black community on Eno Road – a quiet enclave of black families, many of whose forebears were freed slaves.  The report notes that blacks make up less than five percent of the county’s population and occupy less than one percent of the county’s land mass. Statistics only tell half of this story of environmental injustice.

In 2002, Sheila's father, Harry Holt, discovered he had prostate cancer.  Soon after, Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer and her mother, Beatrice Holt, was diagnosed with cervical polyps.  In 2007, Harry passed away.  After Sheila found out that she had cancer, she learned that most of her friends and neighbors on Eno Road had at least one family member who was suffering from some form of cancer. Sheila also learned that the well her family had used for drinking water for decades had become contaminated by trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent, at levels that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) safety standards. The TCE came from a county landfill 500 feet from the Holts’ property that has also contaminated other area wells and springs once used for drinking water.

For at least three decades beginning in the 1960s, manufacturing companies near Nashville, Tennessee (40 miles east of Dickson), dumped industrial wastes containing TCE at the unlined landfill adjacent to the Holt family property. TCE is a known carcinogen and reproductive and neurological toxin. Yet, some two decades after TCE contamination was first detected, neither the companies that caused the pollution, nor the landfill’s owners and operators, nor state and federal regulators, had taken any steps to remove the TCE from the environment.  Dickson County’s ground and surface waters had, in effect, been surrendered to the steady spread of an invisible and toxic chemical.

No one connected the dots for Sheila, she did it on her own. Working with Dr. Bullard, Sheila mounted a David vs. Goliath campaign demanding answers to what had happened in her community and who was responsible for it. The answers did not come easy. A former star athlete, bodybuilder, and fitness trainer, Sheila relentlessly and tenaciously searched for the truth.  Her journey led her to local county commission meetings, the offices of state and federal environmental agencies, the halls Congress, and anywhere else there was someone willing to listen.

Watch a video of Sheila discussing her struggle in a short video documentary by the Washington Post:

Tired of inaction by local, state, and federal officials, the Holts later filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming that their white neighbors were warned of toxins in private wells and springs, and swiftly put on city water as far back as 1993. The lawsuit alleged that although government tests showed TCE had been present in the Holts’ well since at least 1988, including at levels well above EPA’s safe drinking water act limit, they were officially assured their water was safe and not put on municipal water until 2000. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund represented the Holts in the lawsuit.

In March of 2008, NRDC, Sheila, and her mother Beatrice brought a citizen suit under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act to abate the imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment posed by TCE pollution.

Watch a video of Beatrice Holt talking about how the TCE contamination profoundly impacted her family:

Today’s settlement in the case NRDC brought with Sheila and Beatrice ensures that the Dickson community will be permanently protected from toxic well water and provided with safe municipal drinking water. A settlement in the Holt family’s civil rights litigation also ensures that the family will receive compensation for damages associated with their exposure to TCE.

More importantly, today’s settlement provides closure to the Holt family and inspiration for communities all around the country facing similar struggles. 

Congratulations to the Holt family for this landmark environmental justice victory! 

Below is an official statement from Sheila Holt-Orsted on behalf of herself and her family in regards to the settlement of her lawsuits:

Nine years ago when I opened a state file with my father's water test results revealing the presence of Trichloroethylene (TCE), a very toxic chemical, I didn’t know I was opening a can of worms.  And I certainly had no inkling it would  actually contain pythons and anacondas.

But today, a version of justice has finally crawled out.

I sometimes referred to this case as the "contaminated conspiracy." After a national outcry, the father of the environmental justice movement, Dr. Robert Bullard, referred to the Harry Holt family as “the poster family for environmental racism.”

Whatever you call it, the fact is state documents clearly showed the Holt family was treated differently than our white neighbors. When TCE was found in our white neighbors' wells, they were told what they were drinking, removed from their well water and given safe drinking water from the county municipal water supply. My father and other black families were told that TCE was safe to drink and would not cause any adverse health effects. TCE is one of the top toxic chemicals known to man. For the record, we believe that the years of unknowingly drinking TCE gave my father cancer and sent him to an early grave. It is our prayer that no other loved one will suffer as he did from TCE.

Today, I thank God that the County of Dickson and the City of Dickson finally realize that contaminated water is not healthy or smart for its citizens or the environment. The Harry Holt family’s wish that their suffering not be in vain has come true. With the help of our dream team of lawyers, the entire county will be safer. Our water will be closely monitored to ensure TCE contamination does not spread. May no other family – whether they opposed or supported us – suffer from drinking contaminated water in Dickson County ever again. 

The Holt family hopes to put their many court battles behind us and begin to heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The loss of my father, my mother's husband and my daughter’s grandaddy is a wound that will never heal.  My family has endured years of illness and disease, including my own two-time bout with breast cancer and mastectomy. 

But the Holt family has chosen to be victorious, not victims. We took a stand and said not in our backyard. We endured the health costs of the pollution, the racial slurs and verbal attacks, and the abandonment of our government – and we prevailed. This is a win by the mere fact that in this case corporate and government defendants were held accountable. The politics of pollution could not keep the toxic contamination a buried secret. We hope that this victory can serve as inspiration for other communities around the country struggling for justice.

May God help us all,

Sheila Holt Orsted

*Three companies that were previously a part of the environmental suit, Interstate Packaging, A.L.P Lighting, and Nemak, reached an out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs in October.

This posting was edited to add additional information on December 9, 2011.

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