Earth Day 2012: Toxic Environmental Racism in Tennessee Threatens Family

The long and hard fought war against toxic racism is nearly over for the Harry Holt family, an African American family in Dickson, Tennessee whose well was poisoned by the leaky Dickson County Landfill, located just 54 feet from the family’s homestead property line. Five generations of Holt family members grew up in the rural all-black segregated community on Eno Road in Dickson County. The Holt family survived the horrors of slavery and “Jim Crow” segregation, but it may not survive the toxic terror of the deadly trichloroethylene (TCE) chemical leaked into their wells from the nearby landfill.   In 2003, the Holt family and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) sued the city and county of Dickson, the state of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE. And in 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sheila Holt Orsted and her mother Beatrice Holt filed a lawsuit against Dickson City and County governments seeking cleanup of alleged water contamination.

very toxic...
(Creative Commons License photo credit: gonzales2010 )

After more than eight years of litigation, on December 7, 2011, a $5.6 million settlement agreement was finally worked out with the Dickson City and County governments on the NRDC and Holts’ suit and a $1.75 million settlement to be paid to eleven Holt family members on the family’s NAACP civil rights suit with monies from an October settlement reached with three companies that were defendants in the Holts’ NRDC case.

In response to the Holts’ demand for a personal apology from the City and County of Dickson, the settlement agreement includes the following statement: “The county and city regret the Harry Holt family well was contaminated with TCE and the issues experienced by the Holt family.” One would have to assume the “issues” the city and county government officials are alluding to in their statement refer to the fact that the Holt family’s well water was poisoned by a city and county owned toxic landfill and the fact that the Holt family members are sick and some have died. Harry Holt died of cancer in January 2007.  His daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted is recovering from breast cancer.  The county spent more than $3 million and the city almost $1.9 million on the lawsuits.

The industrial solvent TCE is widely known to be harmful to humans. A 2011 EPA study found that TCE is even more dangerous to people’s health than previously thought–causing kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and other health problems. This new EPA study lays the groundwork to reevaluate the federal drinking-water standard for TCE:   5 parts per billion in water, and 1 microgram per cubic meter in air.

Despite the recent settlement agreement, the Holt family’s toxic nightmare on Eno Road, described in the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report as the “poster child” for environmental racism, is not yet over.   Nor is their quest for environmental justice complete since the state of Tennessee, a defendant in the Holts’ civil rights case, has not worked out a settlement. The case is scheduled to go to trial next year.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is the chief environmental and natural resource regulatory agency in the state.  With its $426 million annual budget and 2,900 employees, TDEC is charged with “safeguarding the health and safety of Tennessee citizens from environmental hazards and protecting and improving the quality of Tennessee’s land, air and water.” The Harry Holt family members are law-abiding Tennessee citizens who deserve to be protected just like other Tennesseans.

The mission of TDEC’s Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management is to “protect and enhance the public health and environment from existing and future contamination of the land through proper management and remediation of solid and hazardous wastes.” Clearly, this state program failed the Holt family. Dickson County covers more than 490 square miles. Yet, all of the solid waste landfills in Dickson County permitted by the state of Tennessee are located in the mostly black Eno Road community. This is no random accident since African Americans make up only 4.1 percent of the Dickson County population.

Government records show that the state of Tennessee approved the Dickson County Landfill permit on December 2, 1988–even though state test results completed on November 18, 1988 on the Harry Holt well showed TCE contamination. On December 8, 1988, the state sent a letter to Harry Holt informing the family of the test results and the finding of trichloroethene in his well. The letter states: “Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested. It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethene may be due to either lab or sampling error.”



Two years later, on January 28, 1990, government tests found 26 ppb (parts per billion) TCE in the Harry Holt well, five times above the established Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5ppb set by the federal EPA. The MCL is the maximum concentration of a chemical that is allowed in public drinking water systems.   A year later, on December 3, 1991, the federal EPA sent the Harry Holt family a letter informing him of the three tests performed on his well and deemed it safe. The letter states:  “Use of your well water should not result in any adverse health effects.”  The letter further states: “It should be mentioned, that trichloroethylene (TCE) was detected at 26 ug/1 in the first sample. Because this detection exceeded EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5 ug/1, the well water was resampled. TCE was detected at 3.7 ug/1 in the second sample, however, it was noted this sample contained air bubbles.” EPA then took a third sample with results nearly identical to the second (3.9 ug/1).

Although the Holts’ well was evaluated in 1991 as “safe” by the EPA, state officials continued to discuss the TCE contamination among themselves and with EPA officials in 1991 and 1992 internal memoranda.  On December 17, 1991, an internal TDEC memorandum expressed concern about the level of TCE contamination found in the Holt’s well.  The state officials agreed that Mr. Holt’s well should continue to be sampled as a precaution. The letter states: “Our program is concerned that the sampling twice with one considerably above MCL and one slightly below MCL in a karst area such as Dickson is in no way an assurance that Mr. Holt’s well water will stay below MCL’s. There is a considerably seasonal variation for contaminants in karst environments and 3.9 ppb TCE in only slightly under the MCL of 5 ppb.” Although state officials expressed concern, they took no action to protect the Holt family and allowed them to continue drinking TCE contaminated well water.

A January 6, 1992 TDEC memorandum continued to express concern about the level of TCE contamination found in the Holts’ well. The letter states:  “Mr. Holt’s well was sampled as a result of the Preremedial Site Investigation and Ranking package on the Dickson County landfill for NPL consideration.  Mr. Carr told me the field investigation was complete and that he was not in a position to sample Mr. Holt’s well again even though it had sporadically shown TCE contamination above MCL’s.  He agreed that Mr. Holt’s well should continue to be sampled. There may be some chance of the site going NPL, but that will be at least 1-2 years away. Mr. Carr suggested I contact Nathan Sykes at (404) 347-2913 to determine why it was not felt that further monitoring or an alternate water supply was necessary.” No additional follow-up sampling was conducted by the state and no alternative water supply was provided the Holt family.

A March 13, 1992 TDEC memorandum eventually sides with EPA on the Holt family well water being “safe.” The letter states: “Since EPA has already completed a site investigation, has identified the pollutants involved, and has, in part, determined the extent of the leaching, I would suggest that they, EPA, continue with their chosen course of action, rather than create the added confusion of various agencies making their own agendas. I would suggest that, if Mr. Holt is concerned about possible health risks in using his well water between now and June (when EPA’s priority decision is made), that he should rely on bottled or city water for cooking and drinking purposes until he is convinced that his well water is safe.”  Unfortunately, the Holts were not privy to these internal memoranda and discussions between the state and EPA officials about the safety of their well water. Not having this information, the Holt family continued to drink water from their well.

The way the state responded to black families and white families is like night and day. In 1993, nine white families in Dickson were found to have TCE contaminated wells. A detailed written action plan was developed for each family. The families were notified by the state within 48 hours of that determination and informed not to drink the well water. On March 2, 1994, TCE was detected in a spring used by two white families. On September 2, 1994, state officials notified the white families in writing that “they should not use the water for drinking until further notice.” The white families were immediately provided bottle water and later placed on the city water system.

An alarm should have gone off on February 2, 1997 when the state detected TCE in a production well (DK-21) operated by the City of Dickson and located northeast of the landfill. The Harry Holt well lies between the leaky landfill and the DK-21 well. And on April 4, 1997, the city stopped using the DK-21 well as a supplement to the municipal water source after a call from the state. It seems a bit strange that the Holt family well was not monitored each year as state officials recommended and after TCE was detected in 1991 and after TCE was found at the DK-21 well in 1997. According to the 2004 Dickson County Landfill Reassessment Report (see Table 2) prepared by Tetra Tech EM, Inc. for EPA, the Harry Holt well was not tested at all between 1992-1999.

The Holts’ well was not retested until October 9, 2000–when it registered a whopping 120 ppb TCE, 24 times higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5ppb set by the federal EPA.   The Holt family was placed on Dickson City water on October 20, 2000–twelve years after the first government tests found TCE in their well in 1988.   And on October 25, 2000, a second test performed on Harry Holt well registered 145 ppb–24 times higher than the MCL. This “dirty justice” is unacceptable. The state of Tennessee needs to step up and do the just, fair and right thing by the Holt family members. They have suffered enough.


~ Robert D. Bullard is Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled “Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States” (APHA Press 2011). This post originally appeared here.

Hurricane Katrina & Race: Scholarship at Five Year Anniversary

On Sunday, President Obama gave a speech at Xavier University in New Orleans, marking the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.    I’ll be teaching about Hurricane Katrina to undergraduates this semester, so I’ve been reading and thinking about the scholarship on Hurricane Katrina and race at this milestone.

(Image from BoingBoing)

Although there’s been some good journalism and good blogging about the Katrina anniversary, I haven’t seen much in the way of a review of the research on the subject.    So, here’s my offering.  This is just some of what I’ve run across, organized very broadly by discipline:

Sociology – The sociology on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath highlights the intersection of race, gender and class.  Sociologists contend that the inequality that existed before prior to the disaster, became intensified and deepened in the aftermath of the storm.   Further, sociologists point out the way that this rupture in the usual “colorblind” ethos that prevails in the U.S. served to strengthen whites’ racial apathy toward blacks, especially those who are economically impoverished.

Environmental / Urban Studies – Urban and environmental studies examine the ways that the built environment shaped the disaster and the ways that environmental hazards are concentrated in minority communities.  In addition, those who look at the disaster through an urban studies lens explore the process whereby local economic elites are seeking to make an opportunity of the destruction by monopolizing the planning process and rebuilding the cityscape in a fashion more amenable to the accumulation of capital.

Public Health -Psychology-Mental Health – Psychologists along with public health and mental health professionals examine the impact the disaster had on individual mental health.  One study (Galea, et al., 2008) found that women, and those who had suffered significant financial loss following the disaster, were more likely than men or those who didn’t suffer significant financial loss, to experience PTSD after the storm.

Media / Communications – Communications and media scholars focus attention on the ways that the mainstream media framed the disaster for television audiences and newspaper readers.   Study after study demonstrates that, as Tierney et al. demonstrate, “metaphors matter.”   As the image above illustrates, race played an important role in the ways that the stories from the disaster were told.

Public Policy – Scholars and analysts that examine the racial impact of the disaster from a policy perspective tend to focus on the failure of governmental, corporate and private agencies to respond to the plight of New Orleans’ black community. Stivers makes a compelling case that racism – “The belief that members of a certain race are inherently inferior – less intelligent, less ambitious – has rationalized discriminatory treatment as fitting, proper, and without evil intent,” – significantly shaped the public policy response following Hurricane Katrina.  Five of the six areas classified as most heavily damaged were neighborhoods with 60-80% poverty, and the population was predominantly black.  Stivers notes how these two facts – racism and the disproportionate impact of the storm on black people – shaped public policy response to the storm, when she writes: “On the one hand, the bureaucrat’s job is to lighten the burden imposed by a capitalist economy that inevitably leaves some people at the bottom; on the other hand, American ideology relies on the belief that people who are at the bottom are there because of some character flaw or inherent inability.”

I’m sure there’s good research I’ve overlooked in this brief list.  If I’ve left out some of your research, or some that you know of and use, please add a comment and I’ll update the original post.

Racism, Suburban Sprawl and Imagining a Green Future

I ran across this interview with Van Jones via AlterNet. In it, Jones is talking about the new book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. Jones does a nice job of connecting some dots that may seem disparate to many, like the link between suburban sprawl and racism. Here’s a short bit from the interview:

Sprawl is a response to racial fear and anxiety on the part of white elites. The ‘burbs were designed as a vehicle to get away from people of color, investing more in the white infrastructure as they moved away from the city, and the neighborhoods where people of color live. The other side of that is the disinvestment for the communities that remain behind; the money follows the new suburban development. Those that remain in the inner city continue to lose in this scenario.

When asked in a follow-up question what’s preventing environmentalists and inner-city residents, who both have an interest in stopping sprawl, from working together, Jones does not hesitate to name the issue:

“Racism. It is the reason that people move away from each other. People don’t want to talk about why people call this a “good” neighborhood or that one a “bad” neighborhood, but often it has to do with the race of the people that live there. White people divorce themselves from the bad neighborhoods and move to the suburbs. The black community has a lot of built-up feelings about our history, about the racism we experience. There is some healing that needs to take place there, so these communities have some issues, and don’t want to work with each other, necessarily. There are a lot of feelings there.”

And, Jones goes on to make the connection clear between racism, the current system of incarceration, and what this means in terms of working for a green future :

“The incarceration industry is the new Jim Crow; you don’t have to call him the “N word” if you just call him a felon. There are the same amount of drug problems in the ‘burbs that there are in the inner city, but in the ‘burbs the white kids get counseling, they don’t go to prison. Generally speaking, they only call the police in the ‘hood. The system has responded with compassion to white kids. …Again, the new Jim Crow is incarceration. This is the barrier that separates people from the lives they want to live. You go to the back of the line as a felon. You lose your voting rights, can’t get a good job, you’re denied student loans. It is devastating. We spend less money on public schools than on locking people up; it’s far easier to go to prison than to get a scholarship. … This distorts economic development. The current economic strategy is to take poor black kids, put them in jail in rural areas, and give poor white kids jobs as guards in that prison. That is the economic strategy. Rural towns can’t compete with industry, farms are all going away, so prison is an economic boon for rural communities. Come on, we can’t come up with a better strategy than that? In California, for example, nearly 10 percent of the state budget goes to the prison system, and that could grow to 15 percent or even higher. When you lock up a state budget like that, where is the money to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency? … We can have a Gulag or a green economy. But we can’t have both. If we train former prisoners and guards to put up solar panels, they are already on their way to becoming electrical engineers. If we train them to double pane glass, they are on their way to be a glazer: a good union job and green path out of poverty. Bamboo, it’s so different than timber, you can cut it and it grows back quickly. If we can train folks to do the green thing, they can then walk to the front of the line in an economy based on green jobs instead of an economy from pollution-based jobs. That is where these issues connect. What we need is a green wave that can lift all boats, that can lift folks out of poverty.”

Jones’ is much-needed voice. If there are any folks in the Bay Area interested in these issues, Jones’ Ella Baker Center is hosting an event on November 14, called “Green Cities, Brown Folks,” as part of their on-going “Solutions Salon.” And, if you can’t make it to the event, try that Donation button and drop a dollar. These folks are doing good work.