By Bill Clutter An excerpt of his book COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing US with Cancer
"This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right. A wonderful read"—Scott Turow.
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As 1969 came to an end, Dad became deeply depressed. He lost his job with the railroad. Suddenly, our fortunes had drastically changed.
I came home from school on a brilliant spring day in April 1970 to find a large moving van parked in our driveway. I was in the sixth grade, attending Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. Our home on Lake Decatur was nestled on five acres of an old-growth oak forest. With daffodils and lilacs blossoming, movers were loading our possessions from the house and boxing them up. The sheriff had served an eviction order. If it were not for the charity of my grandparents, we would have been out on the street. All of our family possessions, including the bullhorn from the Wabash Cannonball that Bobby Kennedy held during the Indiana primary, were sold at auction by order of the Sheriff to pay for storage fees.
The following spring, on April 1, 1971, three days after Lt. William Calley was convicted of the My Lai atrocities and sentenced to life in prison, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley’s release and commuted his sentence to three years. Calley served the remainder of his sentence on house arrest.
Three years later, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Campaign operatives of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building, gained entry into the file cabinets and were photographing documents of the McGovern presidential campaign when they were caught by an alert security guard. In 1972, there was no such thing as emails to hack into. The “plumbers” who staged the break-in were a mix of CIA operatives and Cuban exiles working at the direction of G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent. Liddy headed Nixon’s CREEP, famous for its “dirty tricks” that helped Nixon win the presidency.
The smoking gun implicating Nixon came after the House Judiciary Committee voted 33-3 on April 11, 1974, with Republicans joining Democrats, to subpoena the White House recordings of Nixon’s conversations with key aides. Several of these aides had already been indicted by a special prosecutor the year before, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, White House counsel John Ehrlichman, and the Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell. A total of 14 people connected to the President went to prison. The charges included obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy involving the Watergate break-in.
Once the incriminating audio tapes of Nixon’s involvement in the coverup were turned over, the House voted to impeach the President with bi-partisan support. A delegation of Republican Senators met with Nixon to inform him that he had lost their support as the leader of their Party, after which, Nixon chose to resign rather than face trial in the Senate.
The year following Watergate, Dad wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Bloomington Pantagraph on November 28, 1975, after reading about yet another train-car collision. By this time, we were living in Normal, Illinois. I was a high school senior. Dad bitterly accused the railroad’s corruption of public officials as the reason his idea never gained traction. “It is ironically appropriate that the Amtrak Turboliner was filled with politicians when struck by a tank truck near Joliet,” wrote Dad.
“Ten years ago, I sat in then Governor Kerner’s office in Springfield with various state department heads and representatives. I was attempting to get the state help in evaluating and requiring the railroads to adopt a train warning system that I had developed. Roughly 2,000 people a year are killed at grade crossings that were struck by trains since that meeting. A lousy $5 receiver could have prevented those deaths.”
“Why wasn’t the system even given a study? The reason is simple. The railroads through favor-seeking and outright corrupt politicians, have killed it just as surely as they will continue to kill people at their grade crossings,” he wrote.
The meeting at Governor Kerner’s office included upper management of the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC, which regulated the railroads. After the meeting, railroad executives were tipped off that a guy named Clutter was causing trouble for them in Springfield. By the time Dad wrote this op/ed, former Governor Otto Kerner had been convicted of political corruption and had been sentenced to serve time in federal prison.
Dad would tell us the story of witnessing how political corruption worked. He was playing poker one night with railroad executives. A Decatur state legislator joined their card game. The politician was there to collect an envelope full of cash, a campaign contribution. This was before campaign finance laws required strict reporting requirements and limitations on how much individuals and corporations could contribute to politicians.
Dad knew what he was talking about.
Years later, in 1987, I was elected Ward 1 Alderman, becoming the youngest member of a new city council in Springfield, Illinois. More children would die needlessly at railroad crossings, so now I had to deal with the issue of unsafe rail crossings as a member of the city council.
Two years before that election, after offering my services as a private investigator, I got a call from attorney Michael Metnick’s office to serve the complaint in a lawsuit he filed in federal court on behalf of African Americans that alleged systemic discrimination under the Voting Rights Act against the City of Springfield. A federal judge sided with the plaintiffs and ordered a new government of 10 aldermanic districts to replace the 5 commissioners who were elected city-wide. My closest ally on the city council was the person who initiated the lawsuit, Frank McNeil. He was the first African-American elected to the city council and represented a minority district. That special election also saw the election of another African-American, Dr. Allan Woodson.
What made Woodson’s election to the city council more significant than McNeil’s was the fact that his district, Ward 10, had the highest percentage of white voters of all of the 10 new wards. Woodson’s election gave hope that White America would discard its history of bigotry and racism to someday elect an African American as president.
I spent the next 14 years working as Mike Metnick’s investigator. It was Metnick who filed the lawsuit against the utility company that crippled and killed the children of Taylorville, Illinois.
The December 1987 swearing in ceremony of Springfield’s first Aldermanic government since the 1908 Race Riot. Left to right is Chuck Redpath, Phil Burnett, Frank McNeil, Bill Clutter and Jack Andrew. Photo courtesy of the State Journal Register.
It was during my run for the Illinois Senate in 1990, when I began an investigation of an epidemic of a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. It broke out in a town that once employed thousands of coal miners--a plague that descended with a cloud of coal tar over this small Midwestern town--because of the greed of an electric utility company, Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS), that made its money burning coal.
It was a sad injustice, and it happened under the watch of our government, the Illinois EPA that administered the Voluntary Cleanup Program. This business-friendly initiative under Republican Governor “Big” Jim Thompson allowed CIPS to dig up hazardous waste at an abandoned coal gasification plant that ceased operating during the Great Depression, without federal Superfund enforcement.
When the source of pollution was discovered, the EPA required CIPS to remediate the damage that had been done to the environment. CIPS disregarded science and failed to heed the warnings from its own engineers who predicted that an open-air excavation of coal tar posed an unacceptable risk of cancer to the people living nearby.
Scientists from both the EPA and the engineering firm hired by CIPS recommended a safer solution, but CIPS wanted to save money. More interested in maximizing profits and dividends to its shareholders, CIPS used a risky and cheaper alternative. The scientists recommended building a containment dome to cover the excavation, with negative pressure, and to trap and treat coal tar dust and vapors, thus eliminating the risk of cancer from airborne emissions. The decision was made by upper management at CIPS to risk the health of the people.
There is no safe threshold of exposure to carcinogens. Any cancers that might develop, they thought, would appear years down the road. What management at CIPS didn’t consider were children and pregnant mothers. For this vulnerable group, cancers develop soon after a child or fetus is exposed. With adults, it’s just the opposite. It can take decades for cancer to develop in adults from damaged DNA.
The children were the canaries in the coal mine.
FREE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The author will make a digital version available free of charge to any teacher or student who wants to use the story for classroom use. Those interested should send an email with the word EDUCATION in the subject line to email@example.com
To pre-order copies of the book go to: www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design
About The Author
Louisville Private investigator Bill Clutter started his career in Springfield, Illinois. By the time the lawsuit went to trial, seven children from Taylorville were diagnosed with neuroblastoma, four would die. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the families against CIPS. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that verdict in 2002. After Clutter narrowly lost the senate race, his investigation helped free three innocent men from death row and he went on to start in 2001 what is now the Illinois Innocence Project. He was credited, among others, by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn when Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. He moved to Louisville in 2013 to continue work on capital cases and started a national organization called Investigating Innocence, which help free three people, David Camm, from Indiana; Curt Lovelace, a former state prosecutor from Illinois, who was team captain of the Fighting Illini football team that won the Citrus Bowl in 1990; and Rodney Lincoln from Missouri, who spent 36 years in prison.
HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE BOOK: The paperback edition will be released in time for Christmas 2020. Before the book is released to the public, the author will send a digital version of the book to those who make a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to help Investigating Innocence free more people from prison. Go to www.InvestigatingInnocence.org