Sheila Holt-Orsted, 51, of Fairfax, Va., has been a lifelong advocate for children with disabilities, providing recreational therapy and support for special needs youth. She is a modern-day Horae—as in the Greek guardian goddess of nature and rain—for her decade-long environmental justice campaign against her home state of Tennessee and Dickson County where her family has owned an historic 150-acre farm since the days of Reconstruction.
Holt-Orsted’s, legal and environmental crusade while protecting her community’s wells and drinking water, exposed blatant and malicious acts of environmental racism that are still all too common. She specifically challenged Scovill-Schrader Automotive Company’s dumping of toxic waste from its tire plant into a city-authorized landfill in the midst of a predominately Black, rural, and close-knit farm community.
To help contextualize Holt-Orsted’s story, it’s important to consider research conducted by Robert D. Bullard, a preeminent environmental justice scholar from Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga., who provided expertise in her federal court case filed in response to the dumping. According to Bullard:
“After slavery, dozens of Black families acquired hundreds of acres of land—not part of the empty "40 acres and a mule" government promise—and lived a quiet and peaceful existence in Dickson's historically Black Eno Road community. That is, until their wells were poisoned by a county landfill. Although Dickson County is only 4.5 percent Black, the city and county fathers for nearly six decades singled out the small rural, and mostly Black Eno Road community to locate their garbage dumps, landfills, transfer stations, and toxic waste sites. The waste sites are all located on Eno Road approximately 1.5 miles southwest of Dickson.”
For challenging the status quo that had for decades allowed the White community to dump its toxic trash and waste in the Black Eno Road Community, Holt-Orsted’s neighbors in Dickson County jokingly nicknamed her the Black Erin Brockovich. But what happened to the Eno Road Community is no laughing matter. The poison that eroded the soil, water supply and eventually the bodies of the Black land owners of Dickson, began with the corrosive impact of the 1857 Dred Scott opinion in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Blacks had "no rights which the white man is bound to respect." The disrespect towards the Black community by White neighbors and county officials was immediate, caustic, and palpable.
The Holt’s water-well was just 500 feet from the toxic soup of a landfill where “the county allowed White residents and then the Schovill-Schrader Automotive Company to dump waste without the permission of the Eno community residents,” according to Holt-Orsted. For about a decade, from 1964 to 1970, Schovill-Schrader dumped carcinogenic industrial waste solvents which leached into the Black community’s water supply of the residentially segregated Dickson County. Some barrels, which also leaked, were buried in White communities by Scovill-Schrader—but not to the extent that was dumped on the Black side of town. In 1970, Dickson County ordered Scovill-Schrader to cease dumping, but the leaching had already occurred.
According to Holt-Orsted: “It appeared that within each fourth of a mile radius, every two people had developed cancer. The majority of the houses in my small community where I grew up and knew all of my neighbors were impacted by cancer to some degree.” In 2002, in her early forties—an active wife and mother, recreational basketball player and aerobics instructor, residing in northern Virginia— Holt-Orsted began hearing rumors that a cancer cluster had emerged in Dickson County. Her father, mother, aunt and uncle were all ill with cancer—cancer thought to be related to industrial waste dumping. Fearful that a prolonged shoulder injury might be indicative of something more serious, Holt-Orsted went to her doctor.
Ultimately, she was diagnosed with breast cancer twice—losing one of her breasts to the battle, but happy to be alive.
Holt-Orsted returned to her family home during her prolonged illness to weather the storm of chemo and radiation. Through bouts of fatigue and nausea, she travelled 35 miles to the state environmental conservation building in Nashville to research the noxious "landfill.” Among the hundreds of documents she collected, none was more telling than two sets of boiler plate letters from the Tennessee Conservation and Environment Commission warning the members of the White community not to drink the well water because of the TCE danger, while the letter intended for members of the Black community—where most of the hazardous dumping had occurred—reassured the town’s Black denizens that the well water was safe to drink. This blatant governmental-sanctioned racism resembles the methodology of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Holt-Orsted says that based upon her research, the letters were disseminated as late as 1988—well after the EPA, the state, and the county were aware of the dangerous leaching.
Holt-Orsted also discovered through her research and meeting with fellow Dickson residents that the County had provided the largely White side of town with potable water years earlier—connecting their homes to the county’s main water supply to bypass the tainted well water. The Black residents, who had historically been redlined to the Eno Road community where her family’s farm was built, were left to consume the TCE-laced water for decades without notice.
Not deterred, Holt-Orsted took her case, and the plight of her family and community, to the media, to local academics, including Professor Bullard of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta. Along the way, Holt-Orsted met her hero, Erin Brockovich, duplicating some of the tactics gleaned from repeated viewings of the movie named for the now famed environmental attorney. Though quite resourceful, Holt-Orsted was not a legal expert; therefore, she brought her environmental racism case to The Cochran Firm, before capturing the attention of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The Holt family story of environmental injustice and racism received national media attention, and was chronicled in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Essence Magazine, and by Tavis Smiley.
While other families were worn down by the rigors of litigation and dropped their cases, Holt-Orsted was relentless in her pursuit of justice, continuing to research, advocate, and educate the public about the environmental crisis in Dickson’s Black community. Holt-Orsted could not be coerced into silence by the Dickson County government for which she once worked or shamed into the shadows by a White neighbor who once called her a “dirty nigger who only wanted money.” Holt-Orsted’s presiding faith in justice and her desire to protect the environment and make her family and neighbors safe, prevailed.
Just recently, with the NAACP Legal Defense Funds ’s advocacy and the expertise of the National Resource Defense Counsel, a seven-figure settlement was reached with Tennessee agreeing to contain and monitor the impacted wells and soil, which is a multi-million dollar process given the extensiveness of the industrial dumping.
Playing out her own version of the popular Erin Brockovich movie, Sheila Holt-Orsted became a hero for environmental justice, bringing to the fore still relevant issues of environmental racism that persist today.
Joy Freeman-Coulbary, a Washingtonian, is a pacifist, lawyer and blogger. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @enJOYJFC.