By Bill Clutter
An excerpt from Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children.
“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.
High school students from Harlan County, Kentucky stand along the route of Robert F. Kennedy’s motorcade holding up signs on February 14, 1968, calling themselves Youth for Better Harlan. Photo courtesy of Berea College Archives and The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
Prologue Part 1 Understanding injustice comes from personal experiences and the lessons we learn from current and historical events.
In 1968, my father, James Dale Clutter, spent a day during the Indiana presidential primary traveling with Senator Robert F. Kennedy aboard the Wabash Cannonball Express.
My father, Jim Clutter, is the man with his arm resting on the rail. Photo reprinted with permission of The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne, IN.
As a nine-year-old boy, this was my first awareness of politics. Later, it was during my own campaign for the Illinois Senate in 1990 when I began my investigation of an epidemic of a rare childhood cancer in Taylorville, Illinois, a town that once employed thousands of coal miners. It was a plague that descended with a cloud of coal tar over this small Midwestern town because of the greed of an electric utility company that made its money burning coal. It happened under the watch of the Illinois EPA that administered the Voluntary Cleanup Program.
This business-friendly initiative of the EPA under Republican Governor “Big” Jim Thompson allowed Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS) to dig up hazardous waste at an abandoned coal gasification plant that shutdown during the Great Depression.
CIPS disregarded science, and the warnings from its own engineers that it risked creating excess cancers in the community if they failed to spend the money to cover the excavation with a containment dome to trap and treat coal tar dust and vapors. In order to fatten dividends distributed to shareholders, the decision was made by upper management at CIPS to take a risk that wasn’t theirs’ to take.
Any cancers that might develop, they thought, would appear years down the road.
What they didn’t consider were children and pregnant mothers. For them, there is no safe threshold of exposure to carcinogens. For the most vulnerable, like children and developing fetus, the latency period is much shorter than it is with adults. After chronic exposure to something like coal tar, it can take decades for cancer to develop in adults from damaged DNA.
For this story about environmental injustice, the children were canaries in the coal mine.
Before he became a presidential candidate, Kennedy embarked on a Congressional fact-finding mission as a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty by traveling to Eastern Kentucky. The area was one of the poorest places in the country. The coal economy was in decline. By the end of the 1950s, natural gas had replaced coal to heat homes and businesses, and coal-burning steam engines, like the Wabash Cannonball, had been replaced by diesel locomotives.
RFK’s motorcade traveled through the hills of Appalachia, near the town of Van Lear, the Butcher Holler home of Loretta Lynn, who gained fame a few years later with the release of her hit song, A Coal Miner’s Daughter.
In the towns of Whitesburg, Prestonsburg and Hazard, Kennedy saw first-hand the hardships of extreme poverty. He was moved by what he observed there: unemployed and disabled coal miners laboring just to breathe, dying a slow death from Black Lung Disease. The corporations that owned the mines were too greedy to spend money on ventilation systems or respirators to protect the workers’ health from the long-term effects of breathing coal dust. In the richest nation on earth, Americans living in Appalachia were starving, and dying from a preventable disease.
“They’re desperate and filled with despair,” he told a reporter.
Four years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the office of President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, came to Eastern Kentucky with a declaration to wage a War on Poverty, vowing to build a “Great Society” for all, by focusing the resources of the federal government to end poverty.
During his visit, Kennedy questioned why, with all the money going overseas to fight a war in Vietnam, was the Johnson administration cutting funding for domestic programs aimed at helping the unemployed and the poor?
In Knott County, RFK saw the environmental devastation of strip mining. Dee Davis recalled RFK’s trip in a 2007 NPR interview. “When no one shows up to witness the obliteration of mountaintops—vast hillsides being shoved into creek beds—then desperate mining practices flourish.”
In Letcher County, Kennedy addressed a packed high school gymnasium in the town of Neon. “This visit has a special meaning to me because of the great interest that President Kennedy took in this area, and the fact that he had intended to come here in December of 1963,” he told the witnesses who waited their turn to testify.
Photo courtesy of Berea College Archives and The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
“I need not tell you that hard times have come to this land, and that people that live in the area; that much of the land has been ravished by the extraction of its rich resources; the creeks and the streams which run through nearly every hallow are polluted with trash and sewage and acid waste which seeps down from the scarred hills above; wrecked cars dot the landscape, and the men of our hills who worked at great peril to themselves and their health, and their very lives—these men, many of them who have been disabled by accident and affliction, have been left without work and without hope by the automation of an industry which no longer needs them. Riches still flow from these hills, but they do not benefit the vast majority of those who live here, and I think that situation is intolerable.”
A group of students from Harlan County that included a mix of girls and boys, white and black, calling themselves Youth for a Better Harlan, were in the audience and held up banners. They were the same students who stood outside as the motorcade passed, holding up signs that read: “Stop Strip Mining Now!"; “Don’t Give Promises. Give us Education, Jobs"; “No Power, No Rights, No Freedom”; “Poor Power!”. The high school students wore paper bags over their heads. They understood that their act of civil protest would have adverse ramifications, both at home and at school.
Kennedy smiled. “We are delighted to have you.”
Youth for a Better Harlan make a statement as RFK’s motorcade passes. Photo courtesy of Berea College Archives and The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
By the time he ended his two-day trip to Appalachia on Valentine’s Day, Kennedy had won the hearts of the people of Kentucky. A man who appeared to be in his 70s from Prestonsburg told a TV reporter, “It’s one of the greatest days we ever had in this town. Especially the young people. They’re all crazy about him.” The man added, “I feel a little prouder being an American.”
A month later, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, a vocal critic of the war in Vietnam, came within eight percentage points of defeating the incumbent President. Four days later, on March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for president.
Two weeks later, on March 31, before a live-televised audience, President Johnson made the surprise declaration: “With America’s sons in fields far away. . . I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office.” Johnson stunned the nation by declaring, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
For many Americans, like the forgotten voices of the children of Appalachian coal miners, there was hope for a better future. They had a candidate for president, Bobby Kennedy, who was committed to protecting the mountain tops from being ravaged by the mining machines of the coal companies; and cared about protecting the health of coal miners who labored in the mines. Most of all, the children were given hope for peace and equal justice, for all.
Kennedy had given a voice to the people who struggled to end systemic injustice.
"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.”
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
The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $25 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at www.InvestigatingInnocence.org
About The Author
Bill Clutter is a private investigator who started his career in Springfield, Illinois. Clutter got his start as a private investigator by serving the complaint filed by Africans-Americans who alleged that the old commission form of city government elected city-wide, violated the Voting Rights Act in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Clutter was elected in 1987 as the first Ward One Alderman in the City of Springfield. Also elected that year to the new aldermanic government were two African-Americans. The attorney who filed that lawsuit also initiated the lawsuit against CIPS.
In 2001, Clutter started the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His investigation on two death penalty cases contributed to the exoneration of three innocent men who were among the 20 innocent men who were freed from death row in Illinois. The Chicago Tribune credited Clutter, among others, for the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.