Sheila Holt-Orsted’s Crusade: Cancer, Racism and the Class War

There are times and places when the lines of culture, politics, science, and social conventions come crashing together, when the attitudes we’ve been ignoring and the problems we’ve refused to address converge to create a snapshot reality of where we are and where we’ve been. Call it Ground Zero-Prime.

In Dickson County, Tennessee, Sheila Holt-Orsted is living right smack dab in the middle of Ground Zero-Prime. In her family, and what happened to them, four of the major cultural strains of the past half-century collide: racism, the Class War, denial of environmental neglect, and pandering to corporate greed at the expense of public health and safety.

Sheila had breast cancer. Her father died of prostate and bone cancers. Her sister has had a form of colon cancer. And there’s more.

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.

Why all this in one family? You’re recognizing the pattern, aren’t you? And you’re already suspecting that they lived near a toxic waste site. Well, you’re right – and wrong. It was toxic, alright, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The source of the cancers was a landfill – the County dump.

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.

In 1968, the environmental movement was well under way. Only a few years later, its power would force Richard Nixon to create the EPA and give his backing to the Clean Air and Water Act, possibly the most important piece of legislation affecting public health ever passed. If you’re not drinking poisoned water today, if there’s a water treatment plant on your river, if you’re not breathing the lead-soaked fumes from the cars on congested city streets and highways, if acid rain has slowed and smog isn’t killing people every day, it’s because of the CAWA.

But even then, 40 years ago, the most contentious and controversial ecological battles swirled around two questions:

  1. What about all those old, dirty dumps and trash sites?
  2. If we clean them up, who’s going to pay for it?

Town dumps were then – and still are, pretty much – located on the most undesirable local land. In most areas that meant either land away from populated areas…or land near ghettoes, slums, and poor neighborhoods. The decision on where to site a landfill had nothing whatever to do with science and in fact often went against what science would have recommended. The decision was purely political. The only considerations were how much it was going to cost and who was going to complain.

I think I’ve mentioned before – though it’s been awhile – that in the mid-1980’s I was part of a task force charged with creating a county-wide waste management district. I chaired the sub-committee that wrote the law under which the district would operate. Once the work was done, we had to sell the district to each individual town. As a result, I got to tour and hear the histories of almost every landfill in the county.

They all had two things in common: the first was that not one of them was ever sited on land near an upscale neighborhood. It didn’t matter if the land was available. It didn’t matter that the land was far enough away from the underground aquifers that leaching into the water supply would be far less of a problem or that the upscale neighborhoods got their water piped in from reservoirs rather than from wells, meaning that even if the dump leaked it wouldn’t affect them.

What mattered was that land in those neighborhoods was more expensive, and that the people who lived near it were well-connected politically, would scream bloody murder about protecting their property values if a dumpsite was considered within 10 miles of them, and had the money to make sure their voices were heard and their wishes obeyed.

The result was that the dumps were invariably located on commercially undesirable land that often turned out to be in the middle of a watershed, on top of a main aquifer, or dangerously near the water sources – wells, usually – used primarily by the working class and the poor who lived nearby. That land was cheap and nobody much cared if those neighbors screamed. They had no political connections and didn’t make campaign contributions to local pols. Fuck em.

That’s almost certainly what happened in Dickson County. A chunk of cheap land near a working-class black neighborhood that local kids used as an impromptu baseball field, well away from white neighborhoods let alone rich white neighborhoods? Perfect. Grab it.

The second common element was that in the days before the CAWA forced regulation of landfills, they were used by local industry as all-purpose dumps. Everything went into them, from household garbage to old washing machines to the toxic chemical waste from factories producing lead paint, plastics, pesticides, you name it. What they couldn’t dump in the river they threw into the landfill, and any attempt to make them stop was met with fierce and costly legal actions, and threats to move somewhere else – take their jobs someplace that wasn’t so picky about being poisoned.

Enter the Schrader Automotive Group.

[Holt-Orsted and her family] 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.


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.


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.

Alper Holding’s corporate lawyer is using the standard defense in a case like this: prove that those specific cancers came from our TCE’s.

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.”

It’s virtually impossible to do that, scientifically. We have reached the point where we know TCE causes cancer but not the point where we can identify markers in the cancer itself that would connect its origination to any specific source. The corporation knows that and the corporation’s lawyer knows that. Many an industry has been saved from paying the consequences of its greed and negligence by demanding impossible proofs.

In a court of law there are only two ways to do it: 1) statistically, by showing that there is a much higher incidence of cancers in the people who live nearby than can be explained by any other factor, or 2) by getting hold of internal corporate documents that show the company knew that what it was doing was dangerous and did it anyway. Juries have been notoriously shy of convicting on the basis of the first alone. The second is the one that convinces them. Ms Holt-Orsted has no such documents. Yet.

Her case against Dickson County is a lot stronger. Enter racism.

[Holt-Orsted] 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.


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.

(emphasis added)

County officials are, of course, denying that racism had anything to with their decision to test all the white folks first, but their denials are weakened by a couple of things. Orsted’s husband, who is white, remembers being called a “nigger-lover” by a man passing them in a pickup truck. More significant is the testimony of a former county official.

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.”

It could just as easily be a class issue. I’ve heard the same observation made about the difference between the large number of middle-class voters as opposed to the much smaller numbers of poor and working-class voters. We get epithets hurled at us, too, but they’re not as nasty.

What is undeniable is the political dominance of the corporatocracy and the way it feeds into – and exploits – cultural values and racial and class stereotypes. When faced with decisions on who gets priority in a situation like this, putting the rich ahead of the poor, the white ahead of the non-white, is almost automatic. It’s part of the air we breathe as we’re growing up. People are assigned value based on criteria that are outdated by a hundred years – skin color, income, ethnic background. If you’re not in the right category, fuck yah. You don’t count.

At least, not until the people who do count have been taken care of, and even then only if there are enough resources left over to include you. If not? Tough. It’s your fault anyway. You shouldn’t have been so poor or so black or so foreign.

These attitudes ought to be relics of a long-gone time when we were all equally ignorant and most of us didn’t know any better.

But we aren’t and we do and still they remain, poisoning us and our society as sure as Saltire poisoned the water in the Holts’ wells.


11 Responses

  1. […] 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, … Read More… […]

  2. This is a terrible case. It sends my thoughts amuck and my hurt aches to know that there is still such racial discrimination and unequality in the world. This is very disheartening. I wish the LORD would change all of this now and that we did not have to wait for his return. May His will be done and God bless you all.

  3. With all due respect, TJ, if you’re going to sit back and wait for the Second Coming, an awful lot of people are going to die.

    Ever hear the expression. “The Lord helps those who help themselves”? I think if there is a Lord, he put you on this earth to challenge you to make it a better place, not to sit on your ass and wait for him to do it.

  4. I’ve been following this story and it seems that everytime I read an article it gets worst. TJ I agree with you all the way! Nobody else is helping this family, so it is in God’s hands now. This has been on going for several years and this family has lost too many family members. How many more will it take before they get some justice. God Bless all of you! Don’t give up!

  5. thank you all for your support and prayers

  6. I grew up with Sheila in Dickson County. We attended public school together.

    I remember Sheila as a great athelete, and she was always kind to all of us. She didn’t care if I was “white”, or if I wasn’t “in the popular crowd”. She only cared because I was a friend.

    I care about Sheila. I care about her family. I care about the fact that our county commission and the City of Dickson have not been forthcoming and truthful.

    This isn’t a race issue! It’s an issue of right vs. wrong!

    I’ll do what I can to fight for this family, and to help my friend! It pains me to see that our officials don’t do that which we all know is right.

    J. Landon Reynolds

  7. This isn’t a race issue! It’s an issue of right vs. wrong!

    Actually, it’s both. Thanks for sharing a little of your relationship with us. I hear what you’re saying but the racial aspect can’t – and shouldn’t – be denied. Nor should the class element that I stressed. That’s part of what makes the county commissioners wrong.

  8. This should be a open and shut case. And everyone from the local government to the companies involved with the dumping, as well as the State of Tennesee, the EPA should be charged and tried for murder and environmental terrorism.

    Hope and TJ: ‘I wish the LORD would change all of this now’ and ‘leave it in god’s hands’??? Don’t you know that is precisely why they dumped TCE, pesticides, lead paint, dead animals and every damn thing else in that landfill in the first place.

    They did it because they knew the Negros who lived there, Negros just like you, would just throw their hands in the air and wave them like they just don’t care and say: leave it in god’s hands and let the lord take care of it.

    Show me a black christian who wears their religion on his sleeve and quotes scriptures all day and I will show you a do nothing, smiling, dumb ass who only knows one thing and that is to go to church and pray.

    I wonder who else besides Mrs. Holt-Orsted is trying to do something.

    It is beyond comprehension how much crap black people have been conditioned to take.

  9. I am white, and my family has suffered the same ailments as Holt-Orsted’s, although we don’t live next to a landfill. having seen her family photo on television, I can’t help but wonder if morbid obesity had anything to do with her family’s health issues. She’s just playing the race card to garner sympathy and force a settlement. Stop whining. Move. She has a 150 acre homestead, to use her own words. Sell it and move somewhere else. I don’t buy her residential segregation government conspiracy bullsh#t for a minute.

    • I know I’m late. But…Dear Annie, Are you kidding me? I can tell by your name Annie Bigham that you are a BIGOT. And really, is that even your real name, because I doubt you are so brave. I am in graduate school and covering this story and it has brought tears to my eyes. Enough is enough. When White families started getting problems with their birth defects this became a national concern. It’s not about the diseases. Anyone can get cancer and not live around a landfill. This was about the fact that these families were not informed and lied TOO about the damage of consuming the “sweet” water, although they had voiced concern to the government. The problem with America is big businesses and government contineously hide and mask the evils underlying their acts. And for this reason, I personally think that the family was short-changed in their settlement. But hey, it is a blessing that they brought awareness to this problem. As I prepare for my presentation, I hope I can present the facts without boiling over with anger at the injustice. White people want African Americans to forget and to turn the other cheek, and so many African Americans do so. The truth is you are probably undereducated, poor and jealous that African Americans can own so much property. No one makes property, so yeah your advice to sell it rather than to support the family for reparation is proof of your mere jealousy and envy because you sound as salty as your big-pig-headed name.

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