Chapter 1 - Neuroblastoma

“And the children that died were seventy-three . . .The parents they cried . . .

See what your greed for money has done.”

—Woody Guthrie, 1913 Massacre

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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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 year Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Illinois was elected president, the name of the town was changed to Brashear City. Named after Walter Brashear, a doctor who was also from Kentucky. Brashear bought a vast tract of virgin land to grow sugar cane. It was a harsh environment, where slaves arrived as cargo on paddle-wheel steamships, who were sold “down river” from Louisville to work in the fields. Where most died an early death from diseases like yellow fever and malaria, contracted from mosquitos, or from being flogged for not working hard enough or from being worked too hard. Slaves cooked the cane in large vats, which they 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, 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 Breshear City a key port city for oceangoing vessels; thus, 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, calling the company 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 violated 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.

Much of the coal tar that was shipped in on barges and burned in boilers at MSP came from Southern Wood Piedmont’s Chattanooga, Tennessee facility. Coal tar was distilled into creosote which was used o coat utility poles. The wood-preservation plant opened in 1924 on Chattanooga Creek. The coal tar came from the Chattanooga Coke and Chemical plant, which heated coal to produce coke, which was essential for the production of steel. The coal tar that was derived from this process was sold to Southern Wood Piedmont. In 1988, after Southern Wood Piedmont closed its wood-preservation plant, it was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup.

The belching black smoke that came out of the smokestack at MSP was carried downwind, exposing everyone in its path to coal tar. After a year of operation, on July 1, 1986, the local newspaper, the 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.

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.

And 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 unsatisfied with that answer. She scheduled an appointment with a specialist at Ochsner Foundation in New Orleans. A CT scan, a medical imaging procedure known as computed tomography, 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.

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

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.

Mindy Fontenot (left) and Keisha Ponville (right) reprinted with permission from the Morgan City Daily Review.

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. She would be the only child of the five to survive.

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 near Cancer Alley, one of the most polluted places on the planet.

Cancer Alley, along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, had unusually high rates of cancer of all types. The area has the highest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the country outside of Houston. With over 150 petrochemical plants--oil refineries; chemical plants; producers of synthetic rubber; and manufacturers of plastic--all 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 farm fields draining from a vast watershed between the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains.

A confluence of chemicals swirled through the swamps of Louisiana. The cancer cluster may have been caused by any of the toxins that polluted the region. What evidence was there, after all, that the children’s deaths and illness was caused by coal tar?

There was sparse scientific research on neuroblastoma.

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.

"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

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 


To pre-order copies of the book go to: 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


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.”

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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