Dickson, Tennessee, is commonly referred as the “poster child” for environmental racism and toxic dumping. The Holts, an African American family, suffered for decades the health impacts from drinking water from wells that were poisoned by the leak of hazardous wastes from a nearby landfill.
Dickson is a county located about 35 miles west of Nashville where African Americans only comprised 4.5 percent of the total population in 2000. Most of Dickson’s African American population lives in Eno Road community, a neighborhood that has been used since 1946 as cluster of landfills for garbage and hazardous wastes.
During the past decades, barrels of toxic industrial waste solvents have been dumped at the landfill, affecting the groundwater supply of more than 1,400 people that live within four-mile radius of the landfill.
The history of Dickson’s landfill and water pollution is a history of discrimination and government inaction to protect the Holt family.
During decades, government testing, monitoring, notification, remediation and provision of alternative water supply of the Holt family’s wells differed from the treatment of white families whose spring and wells were contaminated.
While authorities recommended continuous monitoring and report of water quality after government records showed the existence of elevated levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen, in the Holt family’s wells in 1988, no re-samples of the water was made until August 2000, when it registered TCE levels 24 and 29 times higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level standards set by the federal EPA. Not until that point the Holt family was connected to the city’s water network.
By the time of the connection to the city network, it was too late for the health of the Holt family, who has been particularly harmed by the toxic materials dumped in his water supply for decades. In 2002 Harry Holt (father of the family) discovered he had prostate cancer. Not too late after that, his daughter (Sheila Holt Orsted) and wife (Beatrice Holt) were diagnosed with breast cancer and cervical polyps, respectively. After finding out that she had cancer, Sheila Holt Orsted started to investigate the source of the health problems affecting her family and neighbors. She found out how, during the years of no government testing in her family’s wells, water supply in other areas of the city inhabited by white families were tested, and that when contaminated levels were found those families were systematically warned and their water supplies were switched to city water.
Aware of the discriminatory treatment, and with the support of environmental justice advocates such as Robert Bullard from the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, as well as two non-profit law firms, the Holt family settled environmental and civil rights lawsuits against the City and County of Dickson in 2003. In the lawsuits, the Holt family claimed that their white neighbors received a preferred treatment.
After eight years of legal effort, in December 2011 a settlement was reached among the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Holt Family, and the County and City of Dickson. As part of the settlement, neighbors of the community were ensured permanent free access to the municipal water supply. Moreover, a monitoring and evaluation system and a $5 million remedy fund will be put in place to ensure TCE levels do not spread beyond current boundaries/levels. Between 2009 and 2012, the Holt family won more than $2 million through settlements with each of the defendants. And in 2013, the family settled with the State of Tennessee for an undisclosed amount bringing this legal chapter of the Holts' painful story of injustice to a close.
Harry Holt died in 2007.