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Local Hero: One Woman's Fight for Safer Drinking Water
Digging through county archives, Holt-Orsted was stunned to learn that as late as the 1980s, industrial waste had been dumped into a landfill near the Holts' well. When the state tested the well in 1988 and found the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE), the results were chalked up to an error. In 1991, after further tests, the Holts were told their water was safe to drink. Their well went untested for the next nine years, during which time area white families' water was tested, found to be contaminated, and the families were advised not to drink it. It wasn't until 2000 that the Holts' well was finally tested again and deemed unsafe.
"During my treatment, I thought, 'If I live through this, I'm going to hold someone responsible,'" Holt-Orsted says. While recovering, she spoke to science professors about TCE's structure, met with local officials, and organized town hall forums to galvanize her neighbors.
By December 2009, Holt-Orsted and her mother, working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, had sued the county, city, and several manufacturers, asking that the contaminants be cleaned up and contained. At the end of 2011, the case was settled—with no parties admitting liability—and the county and city agreed to provide funds to monitor water and connect residents at risk for contamination to the municipal supply. Holt-Orsted plans to educate people across the country about the dangers of TCE exposure. "This is what I'll do for the rest of my life," she says. "This is my calling."
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