Chapter 1 - Neuroblastoma

“See what your greed for money has done."

Woody Guthrie

Listen to the Chapter 1 reading by Author Bill Clutter

     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.

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

     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.


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

The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $20 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at

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.


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