Dickson County appeared to be an idyllic, rural community of rolling farmland in north-central Tennessee. But decades of toxic dumping at a landfill poisoned the groundwater, and left three generations of a local African-American family who live next to the landfill searching for justice.
In 2007 LDF, along with co-counsel, began representing 11 members of the Holt family – an African-American family with deep roots in the area – in their suit against government officials and several private companies for polluting the family’s well water with cancer-causing chemicals. In the lawsuit the Holt family alleged that government officials discriminated against the family for more than a decade by failing to inform them that their well water was contaminated despite notifying other families in the area of similar exposure. Their complaint alleged that the Holts were told that their water was safe to drink for nearly fifteen years after officials first knew the water was poisoned, while other affected families, who were white, received immediate and urgent warnings to stop drinking the water and were provided with alternative water supplies.
The Holts believe that government officials knew as early as 1988 that their family’s well water was contaminated with cancer-causing toxins that had leaked from an adjacent landfill into the water supply at levels nearly thirty times the standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But, rather than take steps to warn and protect the Holt family, government officials did just the opposite – they informed the Holts that the well water was safe for consumption. It was not until 2000 that the Holt family was hooked up to the municipal water supply. By then, they charged, it was too late – every member of the family has in recent years developed serious health problems, including cancer. Harry Holt himself died of cancer in January 2007.
Since LDF began representing the Holts in 2007, LDF survived several motions to dismiss filed by all four defendants and conducted extensive investigation into the claims. Between 2009 and 2012, LDF secured more than $2 million total for the Holt family through settlements with each of the defendants. Following the settlement with the State of Tennessee, the last remaining party, the court dismissed the case in January 2013 and brought the legal chapter of the Holts’ painful story of injustice to a close. Sheila Holt-Orsted, whose initial investigation on behalf of her family uncovered the contamination of the Holts’ well, continues to be a vocal advocate for the environmental justice movement.