In Our Backyard: Environmental Racism in Dickson

By Michelle Chen Sep 04, 2009

You may not have heard of Dickson, Tennessee, but this weekend, the town is center stage in the movement for environmental justice. Civil rights leaders gathered there for a national summit on environmental racism to highlight environmental health issues facing communities of color. The location was a pointed choice. For about a decade, the town of about 12,000 has been at the center of an environmental lawsuit involving a local family and a contaminated landfill, which is just a stone’s throw from dozens of homes in a mostly Black community. The Holts claim that family members have been plagued by health problems due to a toxin from the landfill, trichloroethylene (TCE). Sheila Holt-Orsted and Beatrice Holt, together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, are suing the County alleging that the chemical has poisoned their water system and should be held accountable for the family’s struggles with cancer and other ailments. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has a mandate to support “fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” But the challenge runs much deeper than regulatory statutes or a contaminated well. According to a 2007 report by Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University’s Environmental Justice Resource Center and other advocates and researchers, the history of Dickson and its toxic dump is threaded with a legacy of environmental apartheid, which has condemned a Black community to a public health crisis unfit for anyone else’s backyard:

The Town of Dickson purchased the land for a “city dump” in 1946. Sometime between 1946 and 1956, the newly acquired land, which was bounded by the old “Negro Coaling School,” a one-room county school with grades 1 through 9 that dates back to 1895, became the Dickson “city dump,” an open unlined dump…. According to government records, in 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Scovill-Shrader and several other local industries, buried drums of industrial waste solvents at an “open dump” landfill site… For years, drums of toxic industrial waste solvents were dumped at the landfill, which later contaminated the groundwater. Contaminated waste material was cleaned up from other areas in this mostly white county and was trucked to the landfill in the mostly black Eno Road community.

The report also compared the government’s testing and monitoring of environmental hazards in Black and white areas and found that “the care and precaution that the government officials initiated to protect the health of the white families was not extended to the black Holt family.” The Holt family’s plight is emblematic not just of the depth of environmental racism but of a warped paradigm of upward mobility that mires communities of color in a state of continual disenfranchisement. The report concludes:

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…. The Holt family’s American Dream of land ownership has become a “toxic nightmare.” For more than a decade, this black family has experienced the terror of not knowing what health problems may lay ahead for their children and their children’s children.

Perversely, the modest roots the Holts have struggled to put down now act as another kind of ball and chain. The Dickson case has garnered national attention because it symbolizes the extremes of environmental racism’s reach. But other neighborhoods and homesteads across the country bear the toxic burden more subtly—the kid in West Oakland whose bedroom overlooks a smog-laden highway, or the immigrant farmworker who comes home each night spattered in pesticide. In all these places, and in our backyard, the burden of pollution is heavy with the weight of history. Image: Sheila Holt-Orsted (Steve Jones / OnEarth)