Terry on Dec 8th 2011
Al Huang’s Blog, NRDC
“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.