NRDC et al. v. County of Dickson et al.
In the 1960s, manufacturing companies in and near Dickson, Tennessee, which is west of Nashville, dumped trichloroethylene (TCE)—a toxic industrial solvent that causes cancer as well as reproductive and neurological harm—into an unlined landfill. Although Dickson’s population is largely white, the landfill was located in a quiet, historically African American enclave that included the Holt family’s homestead. And for more than a decade, the Holts unknowingly drank well water that was contaminated with unsafe levels of TCE.
It turned out that the TCE in the landfill had spread. In 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected TCE in the Holts’ well, but the family was told that their water was safe to drink, even as some white families were provided alternative water supplies. Twenty years later, Harry Holt, the family patriarch, died of cancer, and his daughter, Sheila Holt-Orsted, also received a cancer diagnosis. Sensing that something was wrong, Holt-Orsted reviewed state environmental office files and discovered the contamination. Neither the polluting companies, the landfill’s operators, nor state or federal regulators had taken any steps to remove the contaminant. Nor had they fully mapped its spread. Dickson County’s ground and surface waters had been surrendered to an invisible and toxic chemical, and the Holts and other families had not been warned or adequately protected.
So in 2008, NRDC joined Holt-Orsted and her mother, Beatrice, in suing the landfill’s owners and operators, along with three industrial companies that had dumped solvent waste there. The suit was filed under a federal law that allows people to go to court to abate an imminent and substantial threat to health or the environment caused by the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. After years of contentious litigation, the defendants settled in 2012 in a court-approved order.
Under the decade-long court order, a panel of independent scientists appointed by NRDC and the county identified a several-square-mile area at principal risk of contamination. Residents in that area were then offered free connections to safer public water supplies. Dozens of homes were taken off well water as a result, and numerous wells were closed. The expert panel also directed air quality testing that led to the relocation of one family, who lived near a contaminated spring and whose indoor and outdoor air was also contaminated. The expert panel further recommended long-term water quality monitoring, because the contamination could still spread. Though the court order expired in March 2022, a supplemental order sets aside some of the settlement money for the county to detect and address any migration of the contamination going forward.
The case is a stark reminder of the environmental injustices facing communities of color, and of the need for strong environmental laws to hold polluting companies and malfeasant governments accountable.
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