Dickson, Tennessee: the poster child for environmental racism and toxic dumping, USA


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.

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Basic Data
NameDickson, Tennessee: the poster child for environmental racism and toxic dumping, USA
CountryUnited States of America
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Waste Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific CommoditiesIndustrial waste
Domestic municipal waste
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe area near the Holt family’s property has been the site of the Dickson “city dump” and subsequent city and county Class I sanitary landfills, Class III and IV construction and demolition landfills, balefills and processing centers. The site is currently used as a C&D landfill, garbage transfer station and recycling center.

Soma data:

- The garbage transfer station alone handles approximately 35,000 tons annually

- 20-25 heavy-duty diesel trucks enter the sites each day

- Industrial waste solvents.

- In 1988 the Dickson County Landfill accepted 275 to 300 cubic yards of solid waste from the CSX White Bluff derailment clean-up.
Project Area (in hectares)30
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population1,400 people
Start Date1946
Company Names or State EnterprisesCity of Dickson Landfill from United States of America
Scovill-Schrader Automotive Inc. from United States of America
Ebbtide Corporation from United States of America - Company that dumped waste on site
Interstate Packaging from United States of America - Company that dumped waste on site
ALP Lighting Components from United States of America - Company that dumped waste on site
Nemak from United States of America - Company dumped waste on site
Relevant government actors- Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) - City of Dickson - Dickson County - US EPA Region 4

Environmental justice organisations and other supporters- The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

- Natural Resources Defense Council - Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University

The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingLocal ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental Justice leaders submitting testimonies at the US Senate subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental health
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Deaths, Other Health impacts
OtherTCE-related health effects include liver disease, hypertension, speech impediment, hearing impairment, stroke, anemia and other blood disorders, diabetes, kidney disease, urinary tract disorders and skin rashes.

The entire Holt family has suffered the consequences of drinking contaminated water. These include: different types of cancer (prostate, bone, breast), diabetes, hypertension, kidney failures, immune and gastrointestinal disorders
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
OtherDiminished transformative wealth and decrease in land and property values of the Holt family homestead.
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Application of existing regulations
Development of AlternativesLandfills are still in operation but a network of pollution monitoring and evaluation is in place.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.A “bittersweat” victory. Although this case has been widely featured in media, the Holt family has yet to receive adequate justice. The Holt family was able to reach out-of-court settlements with the company and the state of Tennessee. However, Dickson City and Dickson County ended up not having to pay the Holts any costs for the harm caused by their leaky landfill. On the other hand, the city and county together spent $5 million in tax dollars fighting the Holt family’s lawsuits.
Sources and Materials

Holt Family v. City of Dickson/Dickson County - U.S. Court of Appeals
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Bullard, R. D., Mohai, P., Saha, R., & Wright, B. (2007). Toxic wastes and race at twenty: 1987–2007. United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries

Bullard, Robert D., and Beverly Wright. "Disastrous Response to Natural and Man-Made Disasters: An Environmental Justice Analysis Twenty-Five Years After Warren County." UCLA J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y 26 (2008): 217.

Johnson, Glenn S., Shirley A. Rainey, and Laila Scaife Johnson. "Dickson, Tennessee and Toxic Wells: An Environmental Racism Case Study." Race, Gender & Class (2008): 204-223.

Bullard, Robert D. and Beverly Wright, The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities. New York: NYU Press, 2012


Case: Holt v. Scovill / LDF
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NRDC: Tennessee Residents Protected from Toxic Chemical Exposure - PRESS RELEASE from Natural Resources Defense Council
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Environmental racism – Dickson, Tennessee / The Art of Service
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"Poster Child" for Environmental Racism Finds Justice in Dickson, TN / Al Huang's Blog Posted December 8, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment
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Poisoned on Eno Road / The New York Times, By BOB HERBERT. Published: October 2, 2006
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A Well of Pain; Their Water Was Poisoned by Chemicals. Was Their Treatment Poisoned by Racism? / The Washington Post By Lynne Duke - Washington Post Staff Writer Date: Mar 20, 2007
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Media Links

The Holts Discuss Dickson, TN Litigation. Published on Mar 12, 2012

In December 2011, NRDC's Litigation and EJ Teams secured a landmark environmental justice victory in Dickson, TN. Following a four-year legal effort, a settlement was reached in a case NRDC brought on behalf of itself and two members (Sheila Holt-Orsted and Beatrice Holt) of an African-American family.
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Contamination and a Crusade. Uploaded on Feb 14, 2008

Sheila Holt-Orsted says her family wasn't properly warned after toxic waste at a nearby landfill polluted their well water. She is now battling cancer, and the officials who refute her allegations of environmental racism. Credit: Pierre Kattar/WashingtonPost.com Story: Lynne Duke
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Deposition of Beatrice Holt. Uploaded on Dec 8, 2011

Excerpt from the deposition of Beatrice Holt, a member of the Holt family, whose homestead is adjacent to a contaminated landfill in Dickson, TN. Her Tennessee community will be permanently protected from toxic well water and provided with safe municipal drinking water under a settlement reached today among the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), members of the Holt family and the County and City of Dickson, TN. The case has been called the "poster child" for the environmental justice movement in this country by prominent environmental justice advocates.
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A Closer Look at a Toxic Dumping Case - NPR Radio Show

March 26, 2007 9:00 AM ET


Sheila Holt-Orsted believes she got cancer from drinking well water contaminated by a landfill near her Tennessee home — and that city, county, and state officials knew but did nothing because she is black. Holt-Orsted and her lawyer, Matthew Colangelo of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, speak with Cheryl Corley.
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorAlejandro Colsa Perez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update04/12/2014