Correction to This Article
A March 20 Style article on environmental contamination in Dickson County, Tenn., incorrectly described Schrader Automotive Group as a company. It was a division of Scovill Inc., not a free-standing company.

A Well of Pain

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

DICKSON COUNTY, Tenn. Sheila Holt-Orsted sits on the edge of a sofa in her mother's living room, digging through the large translucent plastic bins arrayed at her feet. The Holt family's fight is in there -- the contaminated water, the cancers, the allegations of racism, the lawsuit. A family's seeming devastation, documented in those bins.

Papers are everywhere, spilling onto the sofa, the floor. Holt-Orsted, 45, burrows in deep. But the document she's looking for can't be found.

"It might be in my bed," she says in a voice always verging toward laughter, and she trots off to check.

Her mom, Beatrice Holt, 61, just shakes her head.

"I'd wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and she'd be in there writing something," Mrs. Holt says. "I worry about her, because she has breast cancer and stress is not good. I worry about her cancer coming back."

Holt-Orsted's father, Harry, had cancer too, and died of it in January at 67 after it grew in his prostate and his bones.

"The Lord was just ready for a good man. He wanted a good man and He took him," Mrs. Holt says wearily.

She has had cervical polyps. Another of her daughters, Holt-Orsted's sister, has had colon polyps. Three of Holt-Orsted's cousins have had cancer. Her aunt next door has had cancer. Her aunt across the street has had chemotherapy for a bone disease. Her uncle died of Hodgkin's disease. Her daughter, 12-year-old Jasmine, has a speech defect.

They believe trichloroethylene, or TCE, is to blame for it all. The carcinogen leaked from the county landfill, just 500 feet away, and contaminated the Holts' well water. That fact is undisputed. For years, the family drank that water, bathed in that water, cooked in that water -- and had no clue that it might harm them.

Potted plants from Mr. Holt's wake still fill the Holt living room. A stack of albums and CDs recorded by his gospel group, the Dynamic Dixie Travelers, sits on a bookshelf. "I Feel Like My Time Ain't Long" was his favorite song.

From the den, filled with cheetah and zebra figurines and velvet pictures of matadors, comes the sound of a clock that chirps birdlike every hour on the hour. And the dining table is covered with home-cooked dishes, because a group of lawyers is in town to talk about the family's predicament.

Holt-Orsted is ready with her bins, often the only passengers in her Windstar van as she drives between her home in Dale City, Va., and her mom's home on Eno Road in Dickson County.

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