Sheila Holt-Orsted has sacrificed as much as anyone in her fight for justice. Ms. Holt-Orsted and her family were labeled “the poster-family for environmental justice”1 due to a landfill in Dickson, Tennessee, which contaminated the family’s well water for almost forty years. While white families in the area were notified of the potential dangers of toxins in the drinking water within 48 hours of Dickson officials becoming aware of the issue, affected Black families weren’t notified until decades later, which turned out to be too late for Sheila and her family.
The Holt-Orsted family lived on their farm for over 150 years. Due to exposure to toxins from the landfill, many of Sheila’s family members became ill, including Sheila, who battled breast cancer, and her father who died of cancer in January 2007. The Dickson landfill was located just 54 feet from the family’s property.2
The city of Dickson and the state of Tennessee admitted that the well was contaminated3 and between 2009 and 2012, LDF secured more than two million dollars for the Holt-Orsted family through settlements with each of the defendants.4 In January 2013, following the settlement with the State of Tennessee, the court dismissed the case and brought the legal chapter of the Holts’ painful story of injustice to a close.5
Sheila Holt-Orsted, whose initial investigation on behalf of her family uncovered the contamination of the Holts’ well water, continues to be a vocal advocate for the environmental justice movement.6 The Holt family’s experience is part of what many believe to be a wide spread issue now known as “toxic or environmental racism.”7 The family’s case was an especially egregious example as all the solid waste landfills in Dickson County are located in the majority-Black areas, even though African Americans comprise only 4.1 percent of the County’s population.8
Ms. Holt-Orsted has used her family’s tragedy to call attention to environmental racism. She is a fierce environmental justice advocate who is currently working on a film about her family’s experience and hopes to share her story so that families like hers can be more conscious about environmental racism.
“I had never heard of environmental racism until I was a victim of it. It’s sickening that this is going on in America.”
HEAR HER VOICE
Listen to Sheila share her experience fighting for environmental justice in her community and the impact it has had on her family.