“See what your greed for money has done."
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 for import and export, the town was originally called Tiger Island, for the wildcats that roamed the habitat, when the land, pristine at the time, was first surveyed for development in the early 1800s, during the administration of President James Monroe.
By 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the name of the town was changed to Brashear City, named after Walter Brashear. He was 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. But by the 20th century, sugar was a commodity found in every kitchen in America. New Orleans would declare itself the Sugar Bowl of the world, and on New Year’s Day 1935, hosted the first annual football tournament at Tulane Stadium to rival Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Tournament. That year, the Green Waves of Tulane University defeated the Temple Owls 20-14 in the first Sugar Bowl.
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 it a key port city for oceangoing vessels. Thus, it 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 on the edge of Bayou Boeuf, a waterway on the banks of Tiger Island. Kent converted the old lime kiln to burn hazardous waste, calling his corporation 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.
The old boiler that once heated crushed limestone to make lime was not designed to burn hazardous waste. But 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.
State environmental regulators initially refused to grant the operating permit, expressing concern for the health and safety of people living nearby. But then, the governor interceded on behalf of his friend, Jack Kent. Although state regulators with Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reluctantly approved the operating permit, Kent’s proposal violated the federal Clean Air Act, as well as the Clean Water Act, and many other U.S. EPA regulations intended to minimize the amount of hazardous pollutants that could be lawfully emitted from smokestacks during the incineration of hazardous waste.
Federal law required owners of hazardous incinerators to invest in technology to clean the air emitted from smokestacks. Legitimate operators of hazardous waste incinerators invested large sums of capital to install expensive air pollution controls to ensure that no release of pollutants would harm the health of people or the environment.
But Jack Kent’s facility was cheap and dirty. Kent became filthy rich by undercutting his competitors in the business of hazardous waste disposal. It was greed, pure greed, that motivated the Governor of Louisiana and Jack Kent in the decision that permitted the deadly operation of MSP. It was political corruption that allowed MSP to operate.
Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, one of the most corrupt governors in that state’s history, welcomed the money he received as “campaign contributions” from Jack Kent, who became his largest single campaign donor. Some of the money funded his political ambition, while much of the money Edwards received from people like Jack Kent, was skimmed for personal enrichment. When DEQ regulators balked at approving Kent’s plan to convert the rotary lime kiln to burn coal tar and hazardous waste, he turned to his “friend” the Governor, who was more than willing to accommodate his largest campaign contributor.
Over time, that’s the way the American political system evolved. Politicians who got elected to positions of power had a way of rewarding those who contributed to their victory. Political hacks who donated money and time knocking on doors to help elect a candidate for governor were rewarded with patronage, a quid pro quo arrangement, often placing unqualified people in positions of government employment. Those who could afford to give more, the rich and powerful, corporations like MSP and Jack Kent, were allowed by Governor Edwards to have inordinate influence on their decisions in government to the detriment of the health and safety of the people.
The year after MSP was granted the 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.
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.
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 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 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. The cure can be worse than the disease. 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.
But survival at Stage 4, was hopeless. 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.
Meanwhile three other children, including Nicole Price, were undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma. All five children were diagnosed with this rare form of cancer within an eighteen-month period after the first massive 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. 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 the children of Morgan City.
Mindy Fontenot (left) and Keisha Ponville (right) reprinted with permission from the Morgan City Daily Review.
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: 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 $20 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.