New Chapter in Troubling Tennessee Water Fight

Court order that required Dickson County to protect public from tainted water ends with progress and a need for continued vigilance

NASHVILLE, TN – A long fight for safe water in a Tennessee community that had been called the “poster child” for the environmental justice movement entered a new phase late last week, as a decade-long judicial order that required Dickson County to protect the public from contaminated ground water came to a close. The court-approved order settled a nearly four-year legal fight by the Holt family and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to protect residents of Dickson from toxic and carcinogenic industrial solvents that had leached from the Dickson landfill into surrounding wells and springs. After discovering the contamination decades ago, government regulators told the Holts, who are African American, that their water was safe to drink. They continued to drink the water for years, until family patriarch Harry Holt, and his daughter, Sheila Holt-Orsted, were both diagnosed with cancer.

“The injustice that took my father’s life cannot be undone,” said Holt-Orsted, who helped lead the lawsuit. “We fought back, when many wanted us to remain silent, and today the community is safer as a result. But the contamination could spread again, so people should remain vigilant.”

Holt-Orsted grew up across the street from the County landfill and former town dump. Government officials discovered trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent disposed at the landfill, in the Holt’s well water in 1988, but told the Holts their water was safe. Around the same time, the government told some white families to stop drinking well water, and provided access to cleaner public water supplies. The Holt’s continued to use their well until around 2003, when Sheila Holt-Orsted and Harry Holt were diagnosed with cancer. Harry Holt died of cancer four years later.

“We don’t want anyone else to suffer the pain our family has suffered,” said Beatrice Holt, who lost her husband, Harry, to cancer. “And now I hope they won’t have to.”

Under the decade-long court order, a panel of independent scientists, appointed by NRDC and the County, identified the 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 contaminated.  

After more than a decade of technical work, the expert panel unanimously concluded that the landfill “will continue to be a source of contaminants” to groundwater “for many years to come,” and that future migration outside the currently identified environmental risk area “cannot be ruled out.” The expert panel concluded its work with a recommendation that the County indefinitely monitor for contamination in wells at the perimeter and outside of the present risk area. The Court ordered that some of the settlement money be set aside for that and related purposes.

“This country owes the Holt family a debt of gratitude for exposing the dangerous inequities in the way communities of color are served dangerous water—and for their fight to change that.” said Michael Wall of NRDC. “The right of people like the Holts to hold polluters to account when the government doesn’t is critical to health and justice. Now, as this court order ends, a new, safer chapter opens for Dickson.”

A 2019 report from NRDC, Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) showed that race bears the strongest relationship to slow and ineffective enforcement of the federal drinking water law in communities across the nation. Watered Down Justice was an analysis of EPA data that confirms there is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race, a scientific conclusion that mirrors the lived experience of people of color and low-income residents in the United States. 

For additional statements from Holt-Orsted on the case and its impact, visit the NRDC press page here.  

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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