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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
Name of conflict:Dickson, Tennessee: the poster child for environmental racism and toxic dumping, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Tennessee
Location of conflict:Dickson
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 commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The 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.

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Project area:30
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:1,400 people
Start of the conflict:1946
Company names or state enterprises:City 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 organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
- Natural Resources Defense Council - Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, 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
Other Health impactsTCE-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-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsDiminished transformative wealth and decrease in land and property values of the Holt family homestead.
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Application of existing regulations
Development of alternatives:Landfills are still in operation but a network of pollution monitoring and evaluation is in place.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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 & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Holt Family v. City of Dickson/Dickson County - U.S. Court of Appeals
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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

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.

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

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.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Environmental racism – Dickson, Tennessee / The Art of Service
[click to view]

Poisoned on Eno Road / The New York Times, By BOB HERBERT. Published: October 2, 2006
[click to view]

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
[click to view]

Case: Holt v. Scovill / LDF
[click to view]

NRDC: Tennessee Residents Protected from Toxic Chemical Exposure - PRESS RELEASE from Natural Resources Defense Council
[click to view]

"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
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

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.
[click to view]

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]

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.
[click to view]

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/ Story: Lynne Duke
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Alejandro Colsa Perez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update04/12/2014
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