Living Near a Landfill

By Dom Apollon Apr 08, 2008

“…[U]se of your well water should result in no adverse health effects…,” or “Don’t drink the water … Don’t use it to cook with. Don’t shower with it. Don’t wash your clothes with it.” Which of these messages would you prefer to receive if your home was adjacent to a county landfill where state and federal officials’ tests indicated the presence of unsafe levels of TCE, a toxic heavy metal degreaser? The former message (reminiscent of the recent federal notifications to post-Katrina residents of formaldehyde-fumed FEMA trailers) can be found in a 1988 letter to the Holts, an African-American family, who for four generations have lived on property fifty-seven feet from where Dickson County (TN) placed its landfill in 1968. The latter was the message provided by officials in 1994 to Kaye Stewart and her family, who live approximately a mile away on the other side of the dump. Well, that and twelve gallons of clean water per week. Six years later, officials finally informed the Holts that they too should not use the contaminated water from their well. That’s twelve years after initial tests showed abnormal readings. And while representatives of the 95% majority white county argue that the area’s contamination issues “have affected many families, not just the Holt family,” the differential treatment by race is more than just a little disturbing. Perhaps fatally so. Last year, the family patriarch Harry Holt died of cancer. This past weekend, his daughter Sheila Holt-Orsted, who has battled breast cancer, told her story to a hushed crowd at the Dream Reborn conference in Memphis, TN – hoping to raise awareness for environmental racism and two ongoing lawsuits (Holt v. Scovil, and Holt v. County of Dickson and City of Dickson, TN). Before the former Ms. Tennessee bodybuilding champion spoke, the panel moderator Dr. Robert Bullard showed a brief CNN clip of the controversy. no longer carries the video, but the transcript is worth reading as an example of how racism is so often narrowly defined in intentional rather than institutional terms.