Listen to Chapter 1

Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Killed America's Children

Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Killed America's Children

Coal Tar book cover 6 x 9.jpg




“See what your greed for money has done.”

                —Woody Guthrie


     Morgan City, Louisiana, in St. Mary Parish on the banks of the Atchafalaya River near the Mississippi Delta, had a population of 14,531 when the census was taken in 1990. A port city where ships from the Gulf of Mexico dock to unload and load cargo, the town was originally called Tiger Island after the wildcats that inhabited the area when it first surveyed for development. When it was incorporated as a city in 1860, the name of the town was changed to Brashear City, after Walter Brashear, a doctor from Kentucky who bought a vast tract of land to grow sugar cane. Slave-labor cooked the cane in large vats, boiled into molasses and refined into sugar. A valuable antebellum commodity, sugar was a luxury only the rich could afford before the Civil War.  In 1876, after Charles Morgan, who made his wealth as a railroad and steamship tycoon, dredged the Atchafalaya Bay and developed a shipping canal that linked the city to the Gulf of Mexico, making it a key port city for oceangoing vessels, the town became Morgan City.

      By the next century, in 1985, there was something foul in the air of Morgan City. It was the smell of coal tar.

     Another businessman, Jack Kent, would change people’s lives in the worst way when he purchased an abandoned rotary lime kiln and converted it to burn hazardous waste on the edge of Bayou Boeuf, a waterway on the banks of Tiger Island. Kent incorporated his company as corporation as Marine Shale Processors, Inc. (MSP). The company was in the smaller community of Amelia, a few miles away from Morgan City as the crow flies, on the opposite side of Tiger Island.

     Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) initially refused to grant the operating permit, out of concern for the health and safety of people living nearby. The old boiler that once heated crushed limestone to make lime was not designed to burn hazardous waste. U.S. EPA regulations required legitimate owners of hazardous incinerators to invest in expensive technology to comply with clean air standards.

    Kent’s facility would violate the federal Clean Air Act and other federal laws intended to minimize the amount of hazardous pollutants that could be lawfully emitted from smokestacks during the incineration of hazardous.

When DEQ regulators balked at approving Kent’s plan, he turned to his “friend” Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.  The Governor gladly accommodated his largest campaign contributor.

      MSP quickly became the world’s largest hazardous waste incinerator, using coal tar as a fuel for the boiler that belched out thick black clouds of unburned coal tar from the smokestack.

     Kent’s facility was cheap to operate, but dirty. He became filthy rich by undercutting his competitors in the business of hazardous waste disposal.

     The year after MSP was granted a state permit, on July 1, 1986, the local newspaper, Morgan City’s Daily Review, ran a story about a five-year old girl named Keisha Lynn Ponville. “Cancer Victim Benefit Slated,” said the headline. She had a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system targeting nerve cells that most often starts in the adrenal glands of the abdomen.

     A tumor begins with a single cancerous cell that mutates and causes rapid cell growth. Early detection of cancer at Stage 1 (a very small tumor) or Stage 2 (a larger tumor) is the most treatable and has the best prognosis of survival.

     As a malignant tumor advances to Stage 3, it invades nearby tissues and lymph nodes with new cancer cells. Survival of Stage 3 cancer requires heroic medical intervention.  The cure can be deadly.  The body is bombarded with chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which can damage organs and shorten life expectancy, if one survives the cancer.  Chemotherapy involves injecting or ingesting chemicals into the bloodstream that help stop cancer cells from dividing and growing. Patients experience hair loss and become sickened by the treatment that kills healthy cells, as well as cancer cells. Radiation treatment also causes organ damage in high doses.

It was not long before a second child, Mindy Kay Fontenot was also diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Mindy was just a toddler when her family noticed a large lump on her back.

     After running tests, doctors gave Mindy’s mother the grim news that her child had Stage 4 cancer. Stage 4 is the most lethal stage of cancer when a malignant tumor metastasizes and spreads through the bloodstream where new tumors develop away from the primary tumor. The odds of survival are slim, with many cases ending in death.

     Keisha Lynn Ponville died from the disease on March 25, 1988. She was six years old. Her funeral service was held at St. Joseph the Workers Catholic Church in Morgan City.

     Her death was followed a few months later by Mindy Fontenot, who died on Sunday September 25, 1988. Her funeral service was held at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Morgan City, where her grieving family took their last look at the child’s angelic face. She was only four years old.


     Helen Solar was friends with Mindy Fontenot’s grandmother. After hearing the news about Mindy, Helen rushed to the Morgan City home of her daughter, Billie Jo Price. Helen was still crying when she arrived at her daughter’s home.

     “Oh my God, Mindy has cancer. I think she’s going to die! I have to check Nicole,” Helen exclaimed.

     Helen took hold of her granddaughter and told her to bend over and touch her toes as she ran her hand up and down the two-year old’s back.

Billie Jo, eighteen years old at the time, shouted, “Mom, stop it! what are you doing?”

“I’m feeling Nicole’s back for cancer!” Helen explained.

Billie Jo shuddered at the thought of cancer. Though she was skeptical, she agreed to help her mother.

     There it was. A lump on Nicole’s back.

Helen and Billie Jo immediately arranged for Nicole to see her family doctor. The doctor palpated the tumor and announced it was just fatty tissue. Nothing to be concerned about, he said.

      Helen sought a second opinion and scheduled an appointment with Dr. Hector Ruiz. “Oh, Helen, you’re a hypochondriac,” he said. He concurred with the first doctor that it was a benign fatty tumor.

      Helen was still unsatisfied with that answer. She scheduled an appointment with a specialist at Ochsner Foundation in New Orleans. Doctors there ran a CAT scan and found the tumor on the adrenal gland. There was also fluid on Nicole’s lungs, which was another red flag of something more serious. A biopsy confirmed that Nicole Price had Stage 3 neuroblastoma, the same rare childhood cancer that killed Mindy Fontenot and Keisha Ponville.

     Meanwhile three other children, including Nicole Price, were undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma. All five children had been diagnosed with this rare form of cancer within an eighteen-month period after the first airborne release of coal tar from MSP.

Nicole Price would have surely suffered the same fate as Mindy Fontenot and Keisha Ponville had Helen Solar accepted what the first two doctors told her. The lump on her back was not a benign fatty tumor; it was cancer. With chemotherapy treatment underway, doctors were hopeful that detecting the cancer at Stage 3 had saved Nicole Price’s life.

     Nicole’s paternal grandmother, Miriam Price, and her maternal grandmother, Helen Solar, began to organize a media campaign calling on state and federal health agencies to investigate Marine Shale Processors as their primary suspect for having killed the children of Morgan City.

     As the media focused attention on the neuroblastoma epidemic, the public relations department of MSP deflected blame.  They pointed the finger at others.  After all, the families lived in Cancer Alley, one of the most polluted places on the planet.  Cancer Alley had unusually high rates of cancer of all types.

A confluence of chemicals swirled through the swamps of Louisiana.    The area has one of the highest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the country.  Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans there were over 150 petrochemical plants, an array of refineries like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and chemical plants like DuPont, a producer of synthetic rubber, and manufacturers of plastic, made from oil.

     By the time the Mississippi River gets to Cancer Alley, it is already polluted with pesticides that wash down through drainage ditches, creeks, streams, and tributaries from the farm fields, forming a vast watershed between the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains.  

     The cancer cluster may have been caused by anyone of the toxins that polluted Cancer Ally.  What evidence was there, after all, that the deaths and illness of these children were caused by coal tar? There was sparse scientific research on neuroblastoma. 

     But the year before Mindy Fontenot and Keisha Ponville died, a team of epidemiologists from Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia published their findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1987.   They questioned 105 mothers whose children were born with neuroblastoma between the years of 1970 to 1979 in the Greater Delaware Valley.  A detailed questionnaire was asked about lifestyle, medications, consumer products, smoking habits, and alcohol consumption.  Their responses were compared to a random sampling of mothers who delivered healthy babies.  The results of that study found that mothers who used hair coloring products during pregnancy were more likely to bear children with neuroblastoma than mothers who did not color their hair.  It was a risk factor that was statistically significant.

      Those hair coloring products were derived from coal tar. 




About the author:  Bill Clutter is a private investigator who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1990, Clutter learned that that Taylorville mothers were calling on state health officials to investigate what was happening to the community of Taylorville.  As he began to investigate, he discovered a similar epidemic of neuroblastoma in Morgan City, Louisiana, after that town had also been exposed to coal tar.  

 Published by Investigating Innocence Media, part of the proceeds will benefit a national organization of private investigators Clutter stared in 2013 called Investigating Innocence.  In 2001, Clutter started what is now the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The author will donate part of the proceeds of the book to fund a memorial scholarship in memory of the nine children who died of neuroblastoma in Taylorville, Illinois and Morgan City, Louisiana.  


      Coal tar is the most mutagenic carcinogen known to science.

    A waste by-product from the gasification of coal, it began contaminating our communities at a time in our country’s history when industry was unrestrained by government regulation.

     The technology for converting coal into gas was invented during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, in London, England, in the late 1700s, along with the steam engine that would drive the development of railroads.

     The coal tar, that was shipped in on barges and burned in boilers at MSP, was toxic waste.  Much of which came from Southern Wood Piedmont’s Chattanooga, Tennessee facility, which used coal tar to coat utility poles with creosote, until it closed its wood-preservation plant in 1988.  The utility pole treatment plant opened in 1924 on Chattanooga Creek, and used coal tar from the Chattanooga Coke and Chemical plant, which heated coal to produce coke, which was essential for the production of steel.   Shortly after Southern Wood Piedmont closed its wood-preservation facility, it was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup. 

     After Congress enacted the Comprehensive Emergency Conservation and Liability Act in 1980, (CERCLA) known as Superfund, the first hazardous waste site to be added to the National Priority List was an abandoned coal gasification site in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.  

     In 1977, the Office of the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, called Cancer and Coal Tar Hair dyes: An Unregulated Hazard to Consumers. The report identified a risk of cancer to women who used hair dyes made of coal tar. The report warned, “…coal tar hair dyes contain known or suspected carcinogens that pose a potential hazard to the consumer because they may be absorbed through the skin and scalp.” 

     By 1976, a study published of clinical patients of women with breast cancer found that 87 out of 100 breast cancer patients were “long time users of hair coloring.” According to that study, “polycyclic hydrocarbons found in hair dyes are derived from coal tar (and) are among the most potent carcinogens.” The consensus in the scientific community was building; based on the growing body of research of other studies that consistently linked breast cancer to exposure to environmental carcinogens, with coal tar being a primary suspect.   The proof was in the statistical evidence.

     Another study in 1975 that I found concluded that coal tar hair dyes caused mutagens in sensitive bacterial tests. As a follow-up to that study, the following year, Dr. William Benedict, of the Oncology Department at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, conducted another study that found coal tar hair dyes were associated with chromosome aberrations in laboratory studies of cells. “In view of the reported correlation between specific chromosome changes and the expression of malignant transformation and the fact that known carcinogens rapidly produce chromosome aberrations, I sought and found chromosome changes after treatment with these hair dye components,” concluded Dr. Benedict. One of the significant characteristics of neuroblastoma is the presence of chromosome abnormality in the cells of children afflicted with the disease. 

     The cosmetic industry had persuaded Congress in the 1930s to exempt coal tar hair dyes from regulation by the FDA. The General Accounting Office noted: “…exemptions in the act do not permit FDA to regulate coal tar hair dye products effectively; they bar the agency from banning or restricting the use of cancer-causing coal tar hair dyes.” 

     In 1775, Percivall Pott, an English surgeon, was the first scientist to publish a causal connection between cancer and industrial pollutants, which happened to be coal tar. Bartholomew Hospital in London, where Dr. Pott practiced medicine, had seen a spike in tumors of the scrotum in young boys who worked as chimney sweeps. Crawling through narrow passages, to avoid suffocation from getting stuck, they worked in the nude.  Pott noticed the folds of their scrotum caked in coal tar and dust. At a time when bathing was an infrequent luxury, chimney sweeps had prolonged exposure. Tumors developed at the route of exposure—the scrotum. It was the first occupational study of cancer.  Pott recommended frequent bathing to reduce the risk of scrotal cancer.

     Later, in 1915, a team of Japanese scientist tested Pott’s theory by painting the ears of 101 rabbits with coal tar every two to three days. What they discovered was abnormal cancer growth on the ears where coal tar had been applied. For some rabbits, tumors appeared within 30 days. All the rabbits developed cancer with prolonged exposure after 150 days. Every subsequent study by scientists produced similar findings, as laboratory testing switched to using rats instead of rabbits. 


Over 50,000 coal gasification sites were abandoned  in the United States!

     Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS) had intended to make the Immediate Removal Action of coal tar contamination in Taylorville, Illinois the model for its clean-up program of other coal tar sites.

     However, backlash created by the national publicity of sick and dying children put a halt to those plans.

     After a jury awarded its verdict following a six-month trial in the case of Donaldson v. CIPS, the Illinois EPA required the construction of  containment domes over future coal tar cleanups as a higher standard of care for protecting the health of pregnant mothers, children and citizens of the State of Illinois.  This  prevented the release of volatile chemicals and fugitive dust into the air.  A containment dome had been recommended to CIPS by a scientist at the engineering firm CIPS hired based on a risk assessment, which CIPS deleted from engineering reports that were filed with the IEPA.  The deleted risk assessment predicted CIPS would cause an unacceptable risk of cancer if it proceeded with plans to conduct an open-air excavation of coal tar.


     The lessons learned by the Illinois EPA came at a great cost to the people of Taylorville.  One would think that what happened there would never be repeated by the utility industry.  But history has a way of repeating itself.  Duke Energy “cleaned-up” two Manufactured Gas Plant sites contaminated with coal tar in Franklin, Indiana.  The story was all too familiar.  Reminiscent of the efforts of the Taylorville Awareness Group, in 2018, a new organization in Franklin is mobilizing parents, calling themselves If It Was Your Child; who are seeking a state investigation to find out why their children are sickened and dying from cancer.


Duke Energy used spray foam, a cheap but less protective method of controlling fugitive dust and vapors, similar to what CIPS did to Taylorville in 1987.



     After the Illinois Supreme Court published the first of its kind precedent in Donaldson et al v. CIPS, finding that coal tar caused neuroblastoma in children, it became persuasive in other jurisdictions.

     The opinion gave Thomas Ennis ammunition to persuade the City of Austin, Texas, where he worked as environmental engineer, to pass an ordinance in 2005 to ban the sale and use of coal tar sealants, becoming the first municipality to do so. Ennis was among the first scientists to realize that coal tar sealants were causing toxic run-off that polluted streams, ponds and lakes in his city. 

     After this accomplishment, Ennis started a not-for-profit organization called Coal Tar Free America to educate policy makers and the public about the dangers of coal tar-based sealants.

     Ennis’ campaign for a Coal Tar Free America persuaded retail hardware stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Ace Hardware, and United Hardware, to stop selling coal tar-based sealants.  But coat tar sealants are still commercially available to the pavement coating industry.

     The Pavement Coatings Technology Council, the trade association that represents the manufacturers of coal tar sealants and the companies in the business of applying their products, have teamed up with the steel industry to lobby politicians to oppose these bans.  Well-funded, they have been successful in defeating efforts to ban coal tar sealants in cities and states where bans have been proposed.  Washington was the first state in the country to enact a ban on coal tar sealants, followed by Wisconsin.  But other efforts for state-wide bans have been defeated by the coal tar lobby.

     A 2013 study published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that coal tar sealants accounted for half of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that were detected in forty sampled urban lakes. By comparison, motor oil washed away from road surfaces contributed only one-fourth of the PAH pollutants from run-off.   

     Science had given lawmakers like Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Albany, New York, ammunition she needed to sponsor a ban on the sale and use of coal tar sealants in her state.   Rosenthal was met with stiff resistance from the coal tar lobby.  Her bill was defeated.  Rosenthal lamented to a USA Today reporter in 2013, “The evidence is on our side.  The problem is trying to combat the lobbying of the industry.”

To learn more how you can help email us at or visit 

Kindle E-Book - Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Killed America's Children