NRDC et al. v. County of Dickson et al.

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Sheila Holt-Orsted looks at old water pumps near her family home in Dickson, Tennessee.


Carol Guzy/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the 1960s, manufacturing companies in and near Dickson, Tennessee, which is west of Nashville, dumped trichloroethylene (TCE)—a toxic industrial solvent that causes cancer as well as reproductive and neurological harm—into an unlined landfill. Although Dickson’s population is largely white, the landfill was located in a quiet, historically African American enclave that included the Holt family’s homestead. And for more than a decade, the Holts unknowingly drank well water that was contaminated with unsafe levels of TCE.

It turned out that the TCE in the landfill had spread. In 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected TCE in the Holts’ well, but the family was told that their water was safe to drink, even as some white families were provided alternative water supplies. Twenty years later, Harry Holt, the family patriarch, died of cancer, and his daughter, Sheila Holt-Orsted, also received a cancer diagnosis. Sensing that something was wrong, Holt-Orsted reviewed state environmental office files and discovered the contamination. Neither the polluting companies, the landfill’s operators, nor state or federal regulators had taken any steps to remove the contaminant. Nor had they fully mapped its spread. Dickson County’s ground and surface waters had been surrendered to an invisible and toxic chemical, and the Holts and other families had not been warned or adequately protected.

So in 2008, NRDC joined Holt-Orsted and her mother, Beatrice, in suing the landfill’s owners and operators, along with three industrial companies that had dumped solvent waste there. The suit was filed under a federal law that allows people to go to court to abate an imminent and substantial threat to health or the environment caused by the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. After years of contentious litigation, the defendants settled in 2012 in a court-approved order. 

Under the decade-long court order, a panel of independent scientists appointed by NRDC and the county identified a several-square-mile area at principal risk of contamination. Residents in that area were then offered free connections to safer public water supplies. Dozens of homes were taken off well water as a result, and numerous wells were closed. The expert panel also directed air quality testing that led to the relocation of one family, who lived near a contaminated spring and whose indoor and outdoor air was also contaminated. The expert panel further recommended long-term water quality monitoring, because the contamination could still spread. Though the court order expired in March 2022, a supplemental order sets aside some of the settlement money for the county to detect and address any migration of the contamination going forward.

The case is a stark reminder of the environmental injustices facing communities of color, and of the need for strong environmental laws to hold polluting companies and malfeasant governments accountable.

Additional Materials

Landowner Education Materials

Expert Panel Communications
NRDC maintains an archive of the Expert Panel Communications and water and vapor sampling results.

Case Documents

First Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief (PDF) Plaintiff’s Joint Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (PDF) Plaintiffs’ Joint Response to the County and City’s Motion for Summary Judgment (PDF) Plaintiffs’ Joint Response to Industry Defendants (PDF) Plaintiffs’ Joint Reply in Support of Summary Judgment (PDF) Dickson Consent Order (PDF) Order Regarding Termination of Consent Order (PDF) Informational Letter from Dickson County (PDF) ToxFAQs on Trichloroethylene (TCE) (PDF) Map of Expanded Environmental Risk Area (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, March 20, 2012 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, June 7, 2012 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, June 22, 2012 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, August 24, 2012 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, December 7, 2012 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, April 18, 2013 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, August 13, 2013 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, April 15, 2015 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, June 9, 2015 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, September 15, 2015 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, October 13, 2015 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, January 28, 2016 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, February 18, 2016 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, March 28, 2017 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, August 28, 2018 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, March 11, 2019 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, August 17, 2020 (PDF) Expert Panel Communication, March 31, 2022 (PDF)

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