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

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“And the children that died were seventy-three . . .

The parents they cried . . .

“See what your greed for money has done.”

     —Arlo Guthrie 

     1913 Massacre (lyrics written by Woody Guthrie)

  Chapter 1 -Neuroblastoma

Nicole Price dressed for Easter.

Morgan City, Louisiana, in St. Mary Parish on the banks of the Atchafalaya River near the Mississippi Delta, had a population of 14,531 people when the census was taken in 1990. It is a port city where ships from the Gulf of Mexico dock to unload and load cargo for import and export. The town was originally called Tiger Island when it was first surveyed. It was incorporated as a city in 1860, and the name was changed to Brashear City, after Walter Brashear, a doctor from Kentucky who bought a vast tract of land to grow sugar cane that he processed in nearby mills. In 1876, after Charles Morgan, a railroad and steamship tycoon, dredged the Atchafalaya Bay developing a shipping canal that linked the city to the Gulf of Mexico, making it a key port city for oceangoing vessels, it became Morgan City. 

Mindy Fontenot was six-months-old when her parents noticed a large lump on her back. They lived in Morgan City, not far from Marine Shale Processors, Inc., a hazardous waste incinerator in nearby Amelia that was using coal tar as a fuel to burn hazardous waste in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. 

After running tests, doctors gave Mindy’s mother the grim news that her infant daughter had stage 4 cancer. It was 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. 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. 

 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. 

Helen Solar was friends with Mindy Fontenot’s grandmother. After hearing the news about Mindy, Helen rushed to the home of her daughter, Billie Jo Price, who lived in Morgan City. 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 who was 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. It was a benign fatty tumor, he said. 

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 Mindy Fontenot had. 

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. Chemotherapy can be as lethal as the cancer, as it 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. 

Mindy Fontenot died within six months after she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. 

Nicole Price would have surely suffered the same fate as Mindy had Helen Solar accepted what the first two doctors told her. Nicole was undergoing chemotherapy treatment and doctors were hopeful that detecting the cancer at Stage 3 had saved her 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 Mindy Fontenot. 



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 $5 for each copy sold through the website through December 31st, 2018, to a not-for-profit group called If It Was Your Child, concerned citizens who have banded together to investigate the cause of an unusual number of childhood cancers in Franklin, Indiana.  


“The Illinois EPA identified 130 abandoned Manufactured Gas Plant sites within the state. There were over 1,500 abandoned coal gasification sites all around the United States. CIPS had intended to make Taylorville 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. . . When CIPS excavated the gas holder at the Beardstown site in February 2001, near the banks of the Illinois River, the IEPA required the construction of a containment dome. The volatiles and dust emitted from churning the soil was confined. The air released from the vents was filtered through charcoal, trapping carcinogens, which prevented the spread of cancer. . .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 sites contaminated with coal tar from Manufactured Gas Plant sites in downtown 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.