Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Road to Inequity

In parts of this country, it seems, government sponsored racism is as blatant and toxic as ever. Herbert's latest reads like a "Movie of the Week" docudrama. Unfortunately, it's real life.

In Herbert's words: "Welcome to the World of Environmental racism." (As if plain old ordinary racism isn't bad enough....)

Poisoned on Eno Road
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Dickson, Tenn.

If you stand outside the Holt family home late at night, after everyone has gone to sleep, with the sound of a soft wind drifting through the trees and the damp sweet smell of abundant grass heavy in the humid air, you can easily imagine what this area was like in the days of slavery.

And then the quiet is broken by the sudden eruption of dogs barking and howling on nearby property, and you’re reminded that the tiny population of blacks in Dickson County, even after all these years, is still frequently treated — literally — like garbage.

The property adjacent to the Holt family home is a government-owned landfill. The howling dogs are housed in a pound right next to the landfill. The noise is a nuisance, but it’s the least of the family’s problems.

Toxic chemicals from the landfill have polluted the pristine water that was once drawn from the Holt family well. Unaware that the water was contaminated, the family drank it for years. Now the Holts are convinced that the poisons that seeped for so long from the landfill into the groundwater are responsible for the potentially deadly diseases that have struck several members of the family.

The Holts were not just unaware that their water was contaminated; they had been assured by federal environmental officials way back in 1991 that the water had been tested and was safe to drink.

“They told us,” said Sheila Holt-Orsted, who grew up on the property, “that the water wouldn’t hurt us, and that we shouldn’t worry about it.”

In fact, government records show that dangerous levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen, had been found in the water as early as 1988. The family drank the poisoned water for more than a dozen years after that.

During that time, the government warned white families that the water had been contaminated and provided them with an alternate source of drinking water. The Holts, who are black, were left oblivious to the danger. Welcome to the world of environmental racism, a subject that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

The Holts’ property is on Eno Road, a quiet rustic area with an interesting history. Hundreds of acres of land along the road were acquired by blacks in the post-slavery period. Only recently freed, they were proud of being landowners. The Holts have lived in the community for many decades.

Blacks make up just 4.5 percent of the Dickson County population, and they have always been clustered in the vicinity of Eno Road. This has been a great convenience for the whites, who have run the local governments. For six decades, the Eno Road community has been designated as the place for whites to dump their garbage.

“The city and county fathers singled out this small, rural and mostly black Eno Road community to locate their garbage dumps, landfills, transfer stations, toxic waste sites — you name it,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. “These waste sites are all located on Eno Road.”

When I asked the mayor of Dickson County, Robert Stone, why that particular community had been chosen to absorb so much of the county’s garbage, he said he couldn’t respond because the Holts had filed a lawsuit against the county. He referred me to a lawyer, Eric Thornton, who asked why anyone would think it was peculiar to dump the garbage there.

“It has to be at some location,” he said. He denied that race had anything to do with the selection process, noting that there were also whites who lived nearby.

The ingestion of TCE, commonly used as a metal degreaser, has been associated with a variety of cancers, heart disease, impairment of the nervous system, stroke, liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes and other extremely serious disorders.

At various times, the concentration of TCE in the well water of the Holt family was 24 and 29 times as high as the maximum level of five parts per billion set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Sheila Holt-Orsted has undergone six surgeries and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Her father was stricken with prostate cancer. During a conversation in her front yard, less than 50 feet from the landfill, she told me: “My aunt, who lives next door, she had cancer. And then there was another neighbor who had cancer. I said, you know, ‘Something is not right here.’ ”

Photo credit: Bob Herbert. (The New York Times)

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