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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
Their Water Was Poisoned by Chemicals. Was Their Treatment Poisoned by Racism?

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.

In one, a large notebook is visible, a statement in bold black letters scrawled on its cover: "I want this country to hear my pain."

A Crusade Begins

Her husband, Corey Orsted, 38, gave her "Erin Brockovich," the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie about the busty and bodacious self-made environmental activist. The film offered some good pointers, except that Holt-Orsted, as a breast-cancer survivor, can't show off cleavage the way that Brockovich did.

"Mine's all scarred up," she says. "Looks like a railroad track."

She is not as reticent as her father. He was more private, more old-school proper, didn't want to publicly discuss his prostate cancer and his fears of how he got it.

"I think when my dad was first diagnosed, I was like, if this was me, I'd be shouting," Holt-Orsted says. And then it was her. And she started shouting.

That was back in 2003, when Holt-Orsted received her diagnosis and her crusade began. She opted to have her treatments in Tennessee, where she could rely on extra family support. Between treatments, she mustered the energy to fight those she believes responsible for her family's illnesses. She transformed her parents' home into her command center, there in the semi-rural community where she grew up, where her family's only wealth was the land.

When she wasn't throwing up from the chemo, she dragged herself to government offices to search public records. She researched environmental issues on the Web, sometimes falling asleep at her computer.

A former high school and college athlete turned bodybuilder and fitness trainer, she schooled herself in TCE, one of the most prevalent contaminants of drinking water in the country. It had been dumped at the Dickson County landfill in the 1960s and 1970s.

She reached out to environmental justice activists, including Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. She called him so often and for so long that he finally gave in and called her back. "She sounded desperate," remembers Bullard, who is now advising the family. "She was doing this by herself."

When she heard Danny Glover would be at a Nashville walkathon, she ignored her family's advice and showed up to chase him down. She even tried to jog. But, weak from chemo the day before, her wig sliding off her head, she gave up in tears. "I was a sight," she says, able to laugh now at the memory.

Another time, at a meeting of the Dickson County Commission, she stood up and accused county officials of lying to her family about the safety of the Holt well water, warning, "Whoever in this community decided to let us drink this water, there's a place in Hell for you if you don't find God."

In January, she carried her fight to Capitol Hill, speaking at a panel on environmental racism. Her family's attorney, Matthew Colangelo of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, attended to support her. She had buried her father only days before. Her usual ebullience was gone, as she read, flatly:

"We have uncovered one of Tennessee's dirtiest little secrets: a contaminated conspiracy."

Suits Claim Racism

The Holts' lawsuits, originally filed in 2003 and 2004, name the city and county of Dickson and the state of Tennessee, and claim the family was a victim, among other things, of negligence that resulted in their cancers and other health problems.

They also named Schrader Automotive Group, the company that state and federal documents say dumped drums of TCE and other toxins at the landfill. The company's parent, Scovill Inc., now is called Saltire Industrial Inc., whose assets are in the hands of a trust approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York. Alper Holdings, Saltire's owner, also is named in the suit.

But Michael Etkin, the attorney representing the trust of Saltire's assets, says, "We have yet to see evidence that whatever injuries that the Holts allege were the results of any conduct on the part of Saltire or to what extent the science supports the claim that the various injuries alleged were the result of TCE contamination."

And Don L. Weiss Jr., mayor of the city of Dickson, which originally owned the landfill, said in a statement that city officials had "handled their responsibilities properly."

The Holts also claim the state and county discriminated against them in treating them with less care than the white residents with similarly contaminated water. (The EPA was originally named in the discrimination claim but was dismissed as a defendant because of a legal error. The Holts parted ways with the attorney they had at that time.)

Cribbing Bullard's pithy description of the Holts' plight, Holt-Orsted says it's a case of the "wrong complexion for protection."

Attorneys for the county and state deny the claims in the lawsuits.

"The county considers any allegations that the Holt family members were the victims of racism to be baseless and unfounded," said county attorney Timothy V. Potter, in an e-mail.

But David England, a former Dickson county commissioner who went to high school with Holt-Orsted, believes racism has played a role in the saga. England, who is white, recalls being upbraided by an acquaintance angered at his support of the Holts.

"You're a damn fool," he recalls being told. "There's 94 percent white people in the county and 6 percent black people and you're taking sides with the blacks."

Family Responses

A battalion of angel figurines, big ones and little ones, all of them brown, guard Holt-Orsted's Dale City home. They march across her wallpaper border, keeping watch over her own small family.

They've been married 13 years, she and Corey Orsted, but the past four have been difficult, what with the upheaval of back-to-back father-daughter cancers.

Orsted, an electrician and Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, would rather they all be together, but says, "I have to do what I have to do to support my wife."

He, too, believes the family has been discriminated against. Though he is white, he does not feel uncomfortable with his wife's talk of racism and the blame she lays at the feet of some white officials. Dickson County, population 43,156, was 4.6 percent black in the 2000 census, and Orsted does not know Dickson County well. But he knows that back in the 1990s a man in a pickup truck hollered "[epithet]-lover" at him when he saw Orsted with his black wife. So he does worry about their daughter, who has been living and going to school in Dickson since 2005.

"I don't want my daughter to hate my race or be leery of them because of these actions," Orsted says.

He calls his wife's work "awesome." When she was featured on CNN recently, he says, he felt a surge of pride to know that his family name is part of this battle.

His wife, he says, is aggressive, the kind of person who seizes the initiative.

"Anything she's done, she's been fully fledged, very focused. She makes things her mission, especially this," he says. Her mother and two sisters call Holt-Orsted obsessive, but they mean it affectionately.

This style and singular focus have angered some within her extended family who feel Holt-Orsted has taken the reins of the TCE battle too tightly.

"She caused it. I'm going to tell you right out," Lavenia Holt, the aunt who lives across Eno Road, says of the family split. That part of the Holt family is pursuing its own legal case.

Says Holt-Orsted, "I know I probably burned a lot of bridges." But that is the price she has to pay for the crusade she has chosen, she says.

"I had a minister tell me that this is a ministry for me," she says. "He said think of yourself as Moses. Do you think Moses was volunteering? You're going to have to take it this way rather than questioning why this happened to you."

Says former county commissioner England, "Sheila's been very patient in this. A lot of people look at her as a militant and an iron fist hammering all the time. But in all of us there's a time you snap.

"No doubt, she's scorched earth in relationships all over the place. . . . But I still respect her. Somebody had to carry the banner up San Juan Hill. And I don't think there's selfishness here," he says, adding sadly, "I think it's a girl and her daddy."

'Smoking Gun' Documents

When the Holt family learned in 2000 that they would be hooked up to the city of Dickson's water system because of a problem with their well water, Holt-Orsted and her family assumed it was a mere precaution. They didn't know anything about TCE. They weren't told that their well water contained 24 times the EPA's allowable limit of the toxin.

Only later, after the cancers started and after she'd begun sniffing around the subject, did Holt-Orsted connect the dots and realize the deep health trouble her family might be in. Based on TCE's toxicity and the fact that it had leaked from the landfill, the Holts filed suit.

But even then, Holt-Orsted assumed the contamination of her family's well was due to someone's carelessness or incompetence.

"In the beginning, that's what I thought," she says.

"Until I found the letters."

It happened quite by chance in late 2004, when she went to the state environment and conservation offices in Nashville and asked to see records about the landfill and the family's well water.

"They just hand you a big box of stuff," she says. "They didn't have a clue" that she was being handed fodder for her crusade.

In that box, she found letters and documents indicating that Tennessee environmental and water officials had concerns about the possibility of TCE appearing in the Holt's well water as early as 1988. The Holts' well was left untested for nine years while TCE problems in the wells of white families were tended to with haste, the records showed.

Based on those letters -- what Bullard calls the "smoking guns" -- the Holts amended their suit and added the civil rights claim of racial discrimination, which a judge split off into a separate action. (Both suits are pending.)

"Use of your well water should not result in any adverse health effects," an EPA official wrote to the Holts on Dec. 3, 1991, after one high TCE test was followed by two low ones. But a Tennessee water official questioned the EPA's conclusions, saying that the geology of the area was so prone to leaching that a low TCE test "was in no way an assurance that Mr. Holt's well water will stay below" the EPA standard.

State and federal officials agreed that the Holt well should be tested further. But for nine years, no tests were conducted.

Meanwhile, the toxin also showed up at high levels in a spring and several wells in 1993 and 1994. The white families at those sites were immediately told to stop using the water. And tests were conducted repeatedly all around the landfill -- but not at the Holt well.

Still, the Holts knew nothing. They did not know their well should have been monitored. And they did not know until many years later about the other families with TCE contamination. They never knew anything at all, until Harry Holt's daughter Sheila began poking around in dusty boxes.

A common manufacturing degreaser, TCE is "highly likely to produce cancer in humans," according to the proposed cancer guidelines contained in the EPA's 2001 draft report of its ongoing health risk assessment for TCE. TCE is associated with cancers of the kidney, liver, cervix, lymphatic system and, some say, breast. It is also associated with immune disorders, skin diseases and birth defects such as cleft palate.

Asked why the Holt well was not tested for nine years, Joe Sanders, general counsel for the state's Department of Environment and Conservation, said the state's resources were focused on the places where TCE existed at levels higher than at the Holts'.

"We're definitely not the Holts' adversaries and never have been," he said. "We tried to do what we've done based on the facts that we've had. I've seen Ms. Holt many times at different meetings. I think she's a fine lady and she sincerely believes her cause."

Background for a Funeral

A sharp winter wind whips across an oak-lined ridge, over the tombstones and graves of the old Worley Furnace Cemetery, named for James Worley, a 19th-century slave who ran his master's iron furnace nearby.

Here lie the dearly departed of the historically black Eno Road community, now a dwindling group of African Americans who owned farms amid the area's gently rolling hills.

The cemetery is just across the road from the landfill. To the east are 150 acres of property owned by the Holts for a couple of generations. To the south, on the other side of the landfill, is the vacant and crumbling building of the old Negro Coaling School where Harry Holt was a student. Also to the south is the Worley Furnace Baptist Church where the Holt family once worshipped.

During the days of Jim Crow, African Americans played baseball on that open swath of land, but by 1956, the field had become a dumping ground, according to Bullard, the environmental expert, who found a reference to a "city dump" in a property deed from the period.

The city's official dump opened on that site in 1968. On its five acres, everything from dead animals to drums of chemicals were dumped. The site bred mosquitoes, flies and rodents. It produced the worst smells imaginable -- like burning carcasses -- which the Holts describe smelling every day, not to mention the dust, smoke and ash always in the air. Until 1972, it was unregulated.

After passing into county ownership in 1977, the landfill was upgraded and expanded to 74 acres. But by 2002, the acres of land where chemicals and rotting refuse once were dumped had been capped with layers of soil and clay from which tall white pipes rise like periscopes to vent the buildup of methane gases below. And a collection system for its leached liquids was installed.

But the old landfill's undulating landscape of tall grass interspersed with those tall pipes behind a fence topped with razor wire tells the ominous tale of what lies beneath.

Today, the site takes in only construction and demolition debris. Earth movers and trucks still rumble around there, producing a racket that intrudes upon the small cemetery across the road.

It was the background noise to Harry Holt's funeral.

"They didn't have enough respect to stop," Holt-Orsted says one mid-February morning, on her first visit to her father's grave since his Jan. 13 funeral.

Tears cut a trail of makeup down her face. She folds her arms tightly across her chest, braced against the wind, against the pain. She bends down to straighten two toppled angels that mark her father's grave until his headstone arrives.

Quickly, grief overwhelms her. The sound of plaintive weeping swirls in the cold wind.

"My dad didn't deserve to be treated like garbage," she sobs, gasping for breath.

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