Toxic Terror in a Tennessee Town
Government Makes Black Family Wait for Clean Water
by Robert D. Bullard

February 22, 2006-What would you call an individual who climbs the water tower in Dickson, Tennessee and deliberately dumps deadly chemicals in the town's drinking water supply that ultimately makes local residents sick? Most of us would label that person a toxic terrorist. We would certainly expect to see the Office of Homeland Security, the FBI, the EPA, state and local officials, and a host of other government agencies with strange initials deployed to the small town in warp speed. We would expect the emergency response to be swift and thorough. If such an unthinkable event happened, there is a good chance that the culprit would be hunted down, tried, and mostly likely convicted and sent straight to jail.

What would you call government officials who knew about this unthinkable act, covered it up, twisted the facts, and penalized the victims who got sick from drinking the contaminated water? We would mostly likely label the officials incompetent and their response as bordering on the criminal. We have other names for people like this, but they are not fit to print. The actions would likely prompt government hearings, investigations, and lots of media coverage.

The above scenario did not occur. And we are thankful. However, Dickson, Tennessee is a real town with a real toxic threat—a threat borne disproportionately by its black residents. Dickson, a town of 12,244, is located about 35 miles west of Nashville.

From American Dream to Toxic Nightmare

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.

One African American family in particular, the Holt family, a family of black landowners that have deep roots in the Eno Road community, has been especially harmed by the environmental assaults of the city and county landfills. The Holt family members are riddled with cancer and other illnesses. Contamination from the local county landfill is the chief suspect behind their illnesses.

The Holt family's American Dream of land ownership and home ownership has become a "toxic nightmare." For more than a decade, this family has experienced the terror of not knowing what health problems may lay ahead for their children and their children's children. The fact that the Holt family's wells were not poisoned by a foreign terrorist, but by a state licensed city and county landfill, does nothing to ease their pain and suffering, their damaged health, and the diminished use of their property because of the toxic contamination. It is ironic that the resilient Holt family survived racism and other horrors after slavery and the "Jim Crow" era but may not survive the modern toxic assault in their backyard.

The land Dickson acquired in 1946 for its dump was adjacent to the Roy Holt family homestead. The all-white Dickson City council treated Roy Holt as a modern day Dred Scott. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Scott v. Sandford that blacks had "no rights which the white man is bound to respect." White officials did not respect the Holt family nor did they have any regard for the institutions found in Dickson's historically black Eno Road community.

The city dump was sited next to the "Negro Coaling School," a one-room county "Jim Crow" school with grades 1 thru 9 that dates back to 1895. Sixty-five year old Harry Holt attended Coaling School from 1946-1956. He remembers drinking water from a spring that ran through the school ground. Dickson County later installed a well at the school, located south of the city dump.

To add insult to injury, the town placed the dump next to the all-black Worley Cemetery and a short distance from Worley Furnace Baptist Church, named for James Worley, a trusted slave who managed white industrialist Montgomery Bell's steam-driven Worley Furnace, built in 1844 in Dickson County. The furnace was operated with slave labor.

Black Communities as the Dumping Ground

A 1967 Dickson County Health Department Sanitary Survey Report described the city "landfill" site as "only a little more than an open dump. The refuse is burned periodically causing smoke, odor, soot, ashes and leaving a residue highly susceptible for fly and mosquito breeding." The report goes on to state "the fact that the refuse disposal site is isolated is probably the only reason it has been tolerated." The fact that the "city dump" was also located in the middle of a mostly black community could also account for why it was "tolerated" by the Dickson Mayor, Board of Aldermen, and the larger white community. The Town of Dickson operated the landfill up until 1977 when it was taken over and operated by Dickson County.

There is no shortage of "smoking gun" documentation on the harm done to the Holt family, their homestead, and their community. Without a doubt, Dickson's mostly black Eno Road community was used as the dumping ground for other people's garbage and toxic wastes. In 1964, Dickson became the home to a branch of the Scovill-Schrader Automotive Company, a plant that produced tire valves and gauges. Four years later in 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, the company buried drums of toxic industrial waste solvents at the landfill. The company's wastes are known to have contained acetone and paint thinner. In 1970, Dickson County ordered Scovill-Schrader to discontinue dumping at the landfill. However, by then the damage was already done.

Contaminated waste material was cleaned up from other areas in mostly white Dickson County and trucked to the landfill in the mostly black Eno Road community. For example, Ebbtide Corporation (Winner Boats) removed material from an on-site dump and transferred it to the Dickson County Landfill for disposal. The company disposed of drummed wastes every week for 3 to 4 years. A 1991 EPA Site Inspection Report notes that soil containing benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, and petroleum hydrocarbons from underground storage tank cleanups were brought to the landfill. In 1988, the Dickson County Landfill accepted 275 to 300 cubic yards of solid waste from the CSX White Bluff derailment cleanup.

Slow Government Response

Government records posted on the EPA Region IV website (see Dickson County, TN Landfill Reassessment Report | Land Cleanup and Wastes | US EPA) show that trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen, was found in the Harry Holt and Lavenia Holt wells, located less than 500 feet from the landfill, as early as 1988, the same year the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a permit to Dickson County for operation of the facility as a sanitary landfill. The TDEC approved the Dickson County Landfill permit on December 2, 1988—even though government test results completed in November 1988 on the Harry Holt and Lavenia Holt wells showed TCE contamination.

Two years later, in January 1990, government tests also found 26 ppb (parts per billion) TCE in the Harry Holt well. This is 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. Currently there are fewer than 100 chemicals for which an MCL has been established. However, these represent chemicals that are thought to pose the most serious risk. Some of the health effects associated with ingestion of TEC include liver disease, hypertension, speech impediment, hearing impairment, stroke, liver disease, anemia and other blood disorders, diabetes, kidney disease, urinary tract disorders, and skin rashes.

TCE was found in the Harry Holt family well when sampled by the government on three occasions in 1991. The third test was conducted in July1991. A December 3, 1991 EPA report addressed to Harry Holt states, "the samples collected from your well water was analyzed for organic metals, pesticides/PCBs, and extractable and volatile organic compounds. There were no constituents detected with which exceeded EPA's National Primary Drinking Water Regulations or any other health-based criteria. As such, use of your well water should not result in any adverse health effects."

Although the Holt family wells were evaluated as "safe" by the EPA in 1991, state officials continued to discuss this black family's wells and the TCE contamination among themselves and with federal EPA officials in 1992. A letter from TDEC to the federal EPA expressed concern that the sampling of the Harry Holt well may not be representative of the actual health threat. The letter states: "Our program is concerned that sampling twice with one considerably above the MCL [Maximum Contaminant Level] 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 considerably seasonal variation for contaminants in karst environments and 3.9 ppb TCE is only slightly under the MCL of 5 ppb."

On January 6, 1992, a memorandum from a Tennessee Department of Health and Environment officials, "Phone Conversation Follow-up on Harry Holt Well, Dickson County Landfill," government officials "agreed that Mr. Holt's well should continue to be sampled." This was not done. Although state officials recognized the potential health threat posed by TCE in the Holt family wells in 1991 and voiced some skepticism about EPA's conclusion, they took no corrective actions to protect the Holt family.

Legacy of Noncompliance and Racial Bias

It seems a bit odd that the Holt family wells were not sampled each year after TCE was first detected. However, the Dickson County Landfill Reassessment Report lists no government tests performed on the Holt family wells during 1992-1999 despite the known groundwater contamination problem in the area and the fact that other private wells and springs within a one-mile radius were included in groundwater monitoring tests and government studies during this same period.

The Dickson County Landfill has a long history of noncompliance related to groundwater and leachate violations since at least 1983. It has received numerous unsatisfactory operational notices. The landfill received five notices of violations (NOV) from July 18, 1988 to April 12, 1999, including inadequate daily cover, violation of Groundwater Protection Standards, cadmium detected in ground water and springs at concentrations exceeding the MCL, and violation of inadequate depth cover and pooling of water on landfill cover.

Test results from the Harry Holt well in October 9, 2000 again registered 120 ppb TCE and a second test on October 25, 2000 registered 145 ppb—24 times and 29 times, respectively, higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5ppb set by the federal EPA. It was only after the extremely high TCE levels in 2000 that a Dickson County Landfill official visited the Holt family home informing them that their wells were unsafe. No written reports were sent to the Holts explaining the 2000 test results. The Holt family was placed on Dickson City water on October 20, 2000—twelve years after the first government tests found TCE in their wells.

A Case of the "Wrong Complexion for Protection"

No family, black or white, rich or poor, deserves to have their drinking water poisoned. At the same time, black families deserve the same environmental and health protection as that afforded to white families. It appears the Holt family has the "wrong complexion for protection." How did the government treat white families who were affected by TCE contamination? According to the Dickson Herald, in 1993, nine white families that were found to have TCE contaminated wells were notified within 48 hours of that determination and informed not to drink the well water.

On March 5, 1994, TCE was detected in a spring used by two white families. On September 1, tests were conducted on the spring to confirm it was indeed contaminated. On September 7, tests were conducted on drinking water from the kitchen sinks in eight residences. On September 8, letters of notification were sent to two white families regarding the contaminants found in their spring. The white families were advised "not use the water for drinking until further notice." The spring is located one-third mile from the landfill.

A total of nine tests were performed on the white family's spring between June 25, 1994 and September 20, 2000. Three tests were performed in 1994, after the initial Mach 5, 1994 test turned up contamination in the spring. The spring was again tested in 1995, 1996 (two separate tests), 1997, 1999, and on September 20, 2000. Government tests were conducted even after the two white families were placed on the City water system.

A well was even dug for the white family at tax-payers expense. However, Dickson officials did not spend a dime on a new well for the black Holt family—even though the city and county landfill poisoned their wells and endangered their health. The take-away message from their action is white lives are more valuable than black lives.

In April 1997, TCE was detected in water from a production well (Dk-21) operated by the City of Dickson and located northeast of the landfill. A dye-tracer study, Summary and Results of Dye-Tracer Tests Conducted at the Dickson County Landfill, Tennessee, 1997 and 1998, was conducted to help evaluate whether the landfill was a possible source of the contamination. The study used twenty-four dye-injection and detection sites. The test sites included wetlands, springs, ponds, and wells owned by the City of Dickson, monitoring wells, and domestic wells. The twenty-four sites were located on all sides of the landfill.

One of the dye-tracer test sites was the Humane Society of Dickson County, a facility located at 410 Eno Road that houses more than 300 animals per month. The Harry Holt homestead is located at 390 Eno Road—a few hundred feet from the animal shelter. However, the three Holt family wells were not part of the 1997-1998 government study even though they are a stone throw from the landfill. It appears that Dickson County officials were more concerned about ducks in a pond and dogs waiting to be euthanized than protecting a black family from TCE released from the county landfill.

These same government officials cannot use the argument (excuse) they did not know about the TCE contamination in the Holts' wells. The records show they knew. However, knowing and caring are two different things. The actions of various government officials prove they did not care about protecting the Holt family.

This racial disparity is also documented in the Dickson County Landfill Reassessment Report. The paucity of state tests conducted on the Holt family wells between August 23, 1991 and October 9, 2000, needs to be explained by those government officials charged with providing equal protection of all of the citizens of Tennessee without regard to race, color, or national origin. That's the law of the land.

Government officials allowed the Holt family to drink TCE-contaminated well water from 1988-2000. In 2003, the Holt family filed a lawsuit against the City of Dickson, County of Dickson, and Scovill, Inc. (Scovill Inc. is the company that owned the former Scovill-Shrader Automotive manufacturing plant in Dickson). The Harry Holt et al. v. Scovill, Inc. ,n/k/a Saltire Industrial, Inc. et al. lawsuit is pending in Dickson County Circuit Court. In November 2004, Dickson County Circuit Court Judge George Sexton ruled that a racial discrimination amendment could be added to the Holt family's complaint involving the alleged toxic poisoning of their well water near the Dickson County Landfill.

Victims Pay for Polluting Industry Crimes

Before the county landfill was sited, the Holt family wells were clean and the water was safe to drink. And it was free. Not only has the Dickson County Landfill contaminated the Holt family wells, poisoned their land, lowered their property values, and endangered their health, it now means the family must also incur an added expense of paying Dickson County for water—the same county that caused their problem in the first place. That doesn't seem quite fair since usually the polluter pays—not the victim.

The county had been paying the Holts' entire water bill since 2000 because well water on the property tested positive for TCE. After the Holts filed their lawsuit, the Dickson County Commission stopped paying the family's water bill in 2004. The Holts are law-abiding Dickson County taxpayers. They do not deserve to be dumped on by their government. Since the county landfill caused the family's problem, it seems fitting for the county to pay their water bill as a small gesture of "good faith."

The city and county are not alone in their negligent and discriminatory treatment of the Holt family. Clearly, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management strayed away from its stated mission:

"The mission of the 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."

The lethargic response by state officials allowed this black family to drink contaminated water for twelve years. This is not only unjust, unfair, and immoral, it should be illegal.

Racism created the toxic disaster in Dickson's Eno Road community. All Tennesseans should be outraged. Unlike the Hurricane Katrina disaster that washed away New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast in the Summer of 2005, the disaster in Dickson is a "slow-moving" disaster that has remained invisible for decades. Whether in New Orleans or Dickson, African Americans have learned the hard way that waiting for the government to respond quickly and fairly can be hazardous to their health.


Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA. His latest book is entitled The Quest For Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005).

To view slideshow of Dickson's Eno Road Community click HERE.

To view a follow up to this article please click HERE.

For additional links to the Dickson County Landfill and the African American Holt family's struggle against environmental racism see:

Local NAACP branch seeks answers – Jan. 18, 2006

NAACP Claims Racism is Behind Toxic Dumping – Dec. 6, 2005

Environmental racism cited in Dickson Co. – Nov. 21, 2005

Dickson County water problem persisted for 20 years – May 6, 2005

Racial discrimination amendment could be tagged to lawsuit – Nov. 24, 2004

Family claims county lied about water supply contamination – Sept. 4, 2004

Holt Family files lawsuit against county - Dec. 16, 2003

Family's suit says water poisoned from landfill – Dec. 4, 2003

Cochran's law firm shows interest in Dickson landfill – Sept. 12, 2003

Dickson landfill area will be warned – Sept. 9, 2003

Water assurances were lies, commissioners told – Sept. 3 2003

Family blames health woes on Dickson's County landfill – Sept. 2, 2003