I want to talk to you a little about what’s going on on Eno Road over in Dickson, because, even though it’s been covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, the Tennessean, etc., I hadn’t bothered to pay attention other than to laugh when the folks who live out in Dickson joke about not drinking the water over there because it’s bad.
I mean, I spent a good portion of my childhood in Coal City and we got notices all the time about how the water wasn’t safe to drink because of high levels of radiation left over from the mines (though everyone in the community was suspicious that it had more to do with how close we were to Braidwood and Dresden nuclear plants). We still drank the water and, other than this third arm, I think I came through it fine.
So, I’ll admit, when people start talking about unsafe drinking water, my first reaction tends to be “Yeah, you and everyone else.”
But folks, I’ve spent a good portion of my late afternoon and evening reading up on what’s been going on in Dickson and I feel really compelled to reiterate some things and to draw your attention to some things. I may try to go over there on Saturday, just to get a feel for it myself.
Dickson is the largest town in Dickson County, which is two counties west of Nashville. Many folks live over there and commute into town, so, to the extent that a place like Nashville has exurbs, Dickson is it. In the whole county, there are just over 40,000 people, 93% white, about 5% black. There are probably about 15,000 people in Dickson, and as of 2000, 88% were white and 9% were black.
Eno Road is just southwest of town out State Road 48.
Before the Civil War, Montgomery Bell had his slave James Worley running one of his furnaces for smelting iron near there. Bell even named the furnace after him–Worley Furnace. After the Civil War, black people bought land in this area and a little community sprang up. There’s a Worley Furnace Baptist Church and a Worley cemetery.
In 1968, Dickson opened a dump there on Eno Road (this is also where the animal shelter is). According to the EPA, several local industries start dumping drums full of chemicals at the dump, everything from solvents used to harden fiberglass to solvents used to degrease auto parts. One company that had been forced by the state to clean up its mess at other sites used the dump as a place to ditch that mess.
In 1975, they do a geological survey as they’re looking to expand the dump. The site surveys well for such use, but precautions are recommended:
no liquid wastes to be disposed of; no cuts below 820 feet mean sea level (msl) until the possibility of “seepages” is disproved; maximum cut depth of 20 feet due to increase of chert content in the soil; sampling of water wells within a 0.5-mile radius to determine background quality; waste covering, compacting, and drainage controls; cuts allowable to 800 feet msl if no perched groundwater is present; and a 20-foot soil buffer above any perched groundwater (source pdf)
In 1977, the county purchases the dump and 45 more acres and dangerous waste from other dumps, contaminated soild, waste from an aluminum foundry and other crap is dumped in the dump. According to the EPA, monitoring wells were installed and tested “sporadically.”
In 1986, they do a preliminary assessment of the site to see if it’s a potential hazardous waste site. At the time, Turnbill Utilities sold water to Dickson; Dickson had one active well and one in reserve and used water from Dickson Lake as well. West Piney Utilities served the area around the dump, but bought their water directly from Dickson, with that water coming out of Dickson Lake.
This is important. The EPA report I’m looking at, quoting a State report says, “due to the fact that the city water southwest of Dickson is taken from Dickson Lake and the residents in the area utilize groundwater, this site should be given a medium priority.” Dwell, my friends, on that “and”. I think it means that the State was concerned that not just the water in the nearby wells, but even the water at least two miles away as the crow flies, might not be safe to drink. 1986.
Where Things Start to Get Interesting, if by interesting, you mean gross
1987. They’re finding groundwater at less than 50 feet when they drill to asses soil conditions for a landfill extension. There’s concern that the groundwater they’re finding is part of a larger system over the site. But in October, the extention is approved, by the state.
1988. Ann Sullivan on Furnace Hollow Road (north of the dump, next road north of Eno Road) asks that her well, which her family and cattle are using, be tested. She also calls Worley Furnace Creek contaminated.
In October of 1988, the City claims that they are monitoring the water quality at their well, approximately 1000 feet Northeast of the landfill and at the confluence of the West and East Piney Rivers and that their sampling indicates no contamination.
Lester Randles claims that Bruce Spring has been contaminated by the landfill starting back in at least 1984. The testing for that spring, as well as the Dale Donegan Spring, the Harry Holt well, and the Lavenia Hold well indicates that there is methylene chloride in some of the wells.
December 3, the EPA tells Harry Holt that, even though there is trichoroethylene (TCE) in his well, it’s safe to drink. They test it again on December 8, find TCE again, but chalk it up to a lab error.
January 1991, the EPA finds that the landfil is a mess. There are all kinds of hazardous wastes and they’re leaching into the groundwater. I state this again. The EPA says “landfill had several leachate areas that entered the surface water pathway.” And the EPA was saying “The total population potentially affected was 30,615.” Everyone in the whole damn county was potentially at risk from this thing, because there are two municipal wells within 4,000 feet of the dump as well as contaminating the Piney River.
They note again that Mr. Holt owns a home 500 feet east of the landfill and that his well had been found to be contaminated with TCE.
December 17, 1991, the State writes the Feds and says that they’re concerned about the Harry Holt well. Important info here–they claim to have only sampled his well twice. Remember, he’s still drinking this water, having been assured by the government that it’s fine. There is no indication that anyone’s talking to Holt about their concerns about his well.
January 6, 1992–The EPA says they’d like the Holt well to continue to be sampled, but they aren’t in a position to do it.
February 12, 1992–They sample the Holt wells again, find “no substantial evidence” that the well has been contaminated and assure Lavenia Holt that the stuff they said they found in her well was probably a laboratory or sampling error.
March 13, 1992–The EPA says “if Mr. Holt is concerned about possible health risks in using his well water between now and June (when the EPA’s priority decision is made), that he should rely on bottled or city water for cooking and drinking purposes until he is convinced that his well water is safe.” No word on if anyone conveyed that to Mr. Holt.
Here’s something interesting in the timeline from August 7, 1992–“The report did not consider that the municipal water well [near the dump] was used exclusively (along with City Lake) [near the dump] during certain 6-month periods of the years, and that the Piney River intake [which they thought had been polluted by the dump] served most of the population.”
1994–They’re still finding chemicals in the Sullivan Spring and the Sullivans are told to stop drinking their water. So are the Stewarts.
1996–the City begins to try to identify ways of cleaning up the leachate water.
April 1997–There’s TCE in the Dickson water supply.
May 1999–The city puts a new well near the landfill to use to augment the drinking water and to irrigate the landfill cover vegetation. [!]
April 2000–They try dying the water under the landfill to see if they can trace where it’s going. The Holt wells are not monitored.
September 2000–The government admits no one has been monitoring the Holt wells since 1991. The Tennessee Department of Health meets with the families of nine children born with cleft palates.
In October of 2000, both Henry and Lavenia Holt’s wells are found to be contaminated. (Which means, in spite of the lies, every time the Holts’ wells have been tested, they have been found to be contaminated.)
What Happens When You Spend Twenty Years Drinking Contaminated Water?
You die. Henry, or Harry, Holt died of cancer last year. The Washington Post reports that his wife
has had cervical polyps. Another of her daughters, Holt-Orsted’s [who’s had breast cancer] 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.
Yeah, it’s bad.
The Post also reports “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.” but I believe it’s clear from the EPA’s own timeline that Tennessee was concerned as far back as the first expansion of the dump about the possibility of it affecting the water.
More from the Post
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.
Cleft palate. Like the nine cases we heard about earlier?
Here’s from the Dickson Herald, October 25, 2000.
Rest assured–water supplied by Dickson to its customers is safe to drink.
That’s the message members of the city’s water committee got from the Tennessee Department of Environtment and Conservation’s Chuck Head during a meeting Monday night.
The water, supplied from at least four raw sources, said Louis Burnett, manager of TDEC’s division of water supply, has always been safe to drink. There have been no volatile organic chemicals distributed to consumers through the city’s water supply.
“I want to assure people who live in and around the city of Dickson their water is as safe as it can possibly be to drink,” said Dickson Mayor Donnie Wiess Jr. “It has been in the past, is now and we intend for it to be in the future. We want people to know when they turn their faucets on the water is safe to drink.”
…some 18 or 19 babies have been born in Dickson County since 1997 with a cleft deformity. Two conditions must be present to spur the defect–a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger. Organic solvents such as TCE and toluene are such environmental triggers according to the Birth Defect Resarch for Children. There have been trace amounts of TCE detected at some private wells, as well as DK-21, a well once used to subsidize Dickson’s water supply.
However, DK-21 was used only for 18 days in 1997, and those days were not consecutive days, Burnett told the panel.
I’m not one to call liar, liar, pants on fire… Okay, I am. Because someone’s lying here. Head, in his own memo (here) says “In December 1996, the City of Dickson activated its lake/well source near the landfill to supplement their water source. Dickson uses the Piney River as its primary water source.” [You may recall concerns that the Piney river was being contaminated too.] The City sampled this water and found TCE in it. They sampled it again on February 24, 1997 and found TCE.
It’s unclear to me from these documents what Head means by “activated,” but I’m leaning towards “they started using it for drinking water.” On April 18, 1997, Dickson decides not to use the well.
They used the well again from March 6 to March 19, 2000, but, luckily for residents of the city, the pump broke.
Head goes on to make some more comments about the unusually high cluster of children born with cleft palates.
Conclusions–Racism, Classism, Fuckerism
The Holts feel that they’re the recipients of some terrible environmental racism, that the white people whose wells were contaminated were treated better than the Holts. I think this is the case, but it must be noted that, in this case “better” is a relative term. Everyone around the dump thought the dump was poisoning them, but it seems that it was easy for the various governmental organizations to try to downplay the white folks’ concerns as long as possible and not deal with the Holts’ wells very much at all, even though there was obviously ongoing concern that, because of how close they were sitting to the dump, they were contaminated.
And, please, it seems pretty obvious that the dump was stuck where it was in the first place due to some pretty egregious institutional racism. It’s not like there aren’t other places in Dickson county that are a lot more rural than that, that would effect a lot fewer people. But there on Eno road was where quite a few of the most historically powerless people were situated.
But it’s also clear that there’s some element of… I don’t know if it’s classism, exactly, but something akin to that going on here as well with folks’ at all levels of government’s repeated dismissal of folks’ concerns about the water. In the 70s they knew they were dumping toxins at that site and they knew those toxins were probably going into the ground water which made its way into the drinking water for the whole town. I repeat, for the whole town. But that was just some shit Dickson had to eat. And, even as late as 2000, they were still denying that the water for the whole city had been contaminated even though they surely knew it had been. The people in charge have had concerns all along about the safety of the water, while at the same time denying to the folks drinking it every day–dying of cancer, birth-defecting their children, poisoning their livestock (which entered our food supply, might I point out)–that there was anything to be concerned about.
Well, Jesus Christ, what do you call thirty years of documents at the EPA, if not concern?
And this brings us back around to fuckerly racism. Because, I’ve read articles talking about how the Holts could have just gotten on with city water.
So, the framing of the story seems to now be, yes, there was a problem and the Holts are mysteriously suffering the worst for it, but they could have just gotten on city water if they were so worried, so what can you do about those crazy black people always complaining about something?
And for a lot of folks in Dickson, that’s probably going to seem to make sense–it’s too bad what’s happening to them, but why do they have to be so angry about it? And thank god we’re all safe because that’s just a problem for those black folks.
But it’s not just the Holts. It’s everyone who’s drinking water that comes out of the ground that the landfill continues to leak into.
They can continue to say it’s safe–and now they’re saying that they have systems in place to deal with the leached water–, but their own behavior for the last thirty years ought to tell you that they don’t believe it.
Aw, shoot, folks, it’s late for me. I’ve got to get to bed. Here are some links for you to peruse yourselves.