Tennessee Environmental Justice History? Unexpected activism in the South

When we first moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Vanderbilt University, it became apparent that environmental activism in what is popularly known as the “Deep South” wouldn’t be quite the same as we had seen it around the rest of the country. What we did not expect to find, however, was an area with a rich history of environmental activism, rooted in multiple cases of environmental racism that have been ingrained in the state. From lawsuits over safe drinking water to redlining and battling inequitable waste disposal, Tennessee’s history is key to a more just future.

Safe drinking water is a fundamental human right, yet communities in Tennessee have historically struggled with health issues from unsafe drinking water. Water pollution, originating from agricultural to industrial sources, can infiltrate public and private water systems and lead to negative health outcomes if left untreated. Out of the Tennessee population most affected by environmental toxins and drinking water contamination, minority and low-income communities suffer disproportionately from water pollution.

A famous case of environmental racism in Tennessee is the Holt family’s landmark case in Dickson, Tennessee, a town nearly forty miles west of the state capital. Beginning in the 1960s, companies began using an unlined landfill to dump their industrial waste. It was later discovered that the waste contained trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical that is a known carcinogen. Exposure to TCE is a severe threat to human health due to its toxicity to the kidney, liver, central nervous system, reproductive system, and immune system. TCE is currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which sets the limit for TCE contaminant levels. Despite the detection of TCE in nearby water systems, the companies, landfill owners, and government regulators failed to make any effort to clean the pollution in Dickson.

The waste facility was adjacent to the Holt family property on Eno Road, and, in the early 2000s, Sheila Holt-Orsted investigated and connected the landfill to cancer rates in her neighborhood. In 2002, Harry Holt, Sheila’s father, discovered he had prostate cancer; a breast cancer diagnosis for Sheila followed, and Beatrice Holt, Sheila’s mother, was later diagnosed with cervical polyps. Harry passed away in 2007 after a difficult battle with cancer. Although this was devastating for the family, cancer was not only rampant in the Holt family, but along Eno Road in general, with most of Sheila’s neighbors having at least one family member struggling with cancer.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Sheila soon discovered that her family’s drinking water well had been contaminated with TCE for decades longer than they had been made aware, with levels of TCE well over the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standards. This lack of proper warning of the TCE risk did not appear to be random. White individuals in the community were warned of the toxins and were immediately switched to the city water system, years earlier than Black residents were. Additionally, the placement of the landfill did not appear to be random either; while Dickson County is more than 490 square miles and only 4.5 percent of the county’s population was Black in 2000, the only waste facility in the county was located directly next to the predominantly Black community on Eno Road.

Seeking justice, the Holt family filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2003 against the city and county of Dickson, the state of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE-contaminated waste. The lawsuit alleged that government tests detected TCE in the Holt’s well water since at least 1988 and white residents had been notified within 48 hours of Dickson officials becoming aware of the issue. But the Holts and other Black families were not switched to municipal water until 2000. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took the case and represented the Holts in their fight for environmental justice. In 2008, Sheila and her mother Beatrice, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), filed a lawsuit against the city and county of Dickson pushing for cleanup efforts to address the water contamination. In 2011, a $5.6 million settlement agreement was reached with the Dickson city and county government in the NRDC lawsuit. It was also agreed that $1.75 million would be paid to eleven Holt family members as a result of the family’s NAACP civil rights suit.

While the Holt family did receive some financial amends, no amount of money can right the racial discrimination that the Black community in Dickson faced. Patterns of environmental racism like this can be examined across the United States and globally. As Robert Bullard, father of environmental justice, put it, “What happened to the Holt family, disturbingly, is not an isolated incident.”

Like the water sanitation issues during the state’s history, Nashville is also plagued by redlining and waste disposal hazards, especially in its Black communities. One of the most obvious examples of these crises is in Bordeaux County, a neighborhood in North Nashville that hosts almost all the landfills in the city. To put it simply, Nashville has had a waste problem for decades. With more and more waste being produced and even less space in landfills, the city is struggling to deal with waste disposal.

The Tennessee Scene reported that the proposed expansion has a lot to do with the Metro Solid Waste Board’s failure to notify residents of meetings about the landfill’s plans, as well as other environmental and traffic concerns. The county’s residents, already wary of the government and private companies, have expressed concerns about a flow of trucks going to and from the facilities. Many have called this area a “sacrifice zone” for the rest of the state, which is problematic since three-fourths of Bordeaux county’s citizens are Black. They also worry that the industrial activities concentrated in the area will affect water quality in the nearby Cumberland River, which many residents rely on. Such projects, they argue, aren’t being located in richer, White neighborhoods like Green Hills.

In interviews, local residents have called the area a “dumping ground for Nashville and Davidson County.” They allege that the noise, air pollution, and litter caused by the facilities is inequitable, and a result of decades of history of environmental racism and redlining in the area.

Waste Management first proposed expansions to the facility in Bordeaux County in the early 2000s. The landfill’s spokesperson said that the company’s proposal called for a multi-acre expansion of the already 270-acre facility. The proposal would extend the operation of the landfill, which was scheduled to close in 2010, and would operate for another decade if the city permitted the proposal.

Many Bordeaux residents have argued for decades that there is more at stake than a simple landfill expansion, but rather a loss of their autonomy over the health and environment of their communities. “The push to put more industrial stuff out here,” one resident told the Nashville Scene, “is one of the biggest problems we have. There are already a lot of industrial areas in Nashville that we aren’t using.”​​

Ultimately, it’s clear that environmental racism is not new to Nashville or Tennessee as a whole. Air pollution fallout in the Cayce Homes community has contributed to elevated pediatric asthma cases, waste ash piles in Salemtown have destroyed community health, and illegal “soil mines” in Bordeaux continue to pollute the community when they’re used to cover ash. Yet, despite being in a region where environmental activism is unexpected, Tennessee’s deep history with environmental justice has made it a hotspot for grassroots activism. Our movements for fossil fuel divestment at some of the state’s biggest institutions intend to build on this important history.

— Aaditi Lele and Ellie Crone

RCC Fellow – Aaditi Lele – Vanderbilt University

RCC Fellow Aaditi Lele is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, majoring in Climate Studies and Political Science on the International Politics track, with a minor in South Asian Language and Culture. After graduation, she hopes to attend law school and focus on the intersection of climate justice and international migration law, sparked by her passion for the environment and her immigrant roots. Aaditi also serves as the News Editor for her campus newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, the Vice President of Political Involvement for Vanderbilt Women in Government, and the Policy Communications lead for the climate advocacy group Zero Hour.

RCC Fellow – Eleanor Crone – Vanderbilt University

RCC Fellow Ellie Crone is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University double majoring in Public Policy and Climate Studies with a minor in Earth and Environmental Science. Growing up Norfolk, Connecticut, she learned to cherish nature at a young age and became passionate about conservation through a GIS trail mapping internship and her volunteer work with the Sierra Club and local land trusts. On campus, Eleanor advocates for sustainable change through DivestVU and Vanderbilt Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility.

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