For Our Children

And you, mothers of America, --you, who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind, --by the sacred love you bear your child; . . . By the sick hour of your child; by those dying eyes, which you can never forget; by those last cries, that wrung your heart when you could neither help nor save; by the desolation of that empty cradle, that silent nursery, --I beseech you . . .”

--Harriet Beecher Stowe—Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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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The students of Burleigh Middle School who lobbied for a ban on coal tar sealants in Maryland.

In the United States, a class of school children are taking on another segment of the coal industry—coal tar.

At the beginning of 2018, months before Greta Thunberg started her protest in front of the Swedish Parliament, a class of 5th grade students at Centennial Lane Elementary School, in Ellicott City, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, began a movement to ban coal tar sealants in their community.

Their teacher, Eric Pellegrino, read about a nearby community that had banned coal tar sealants and assigned his students to study the health effects of coal tar. They found the story of the CIPS case on my website. That’s where they discovered the published opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court decision in Donaldson et. al. v Central Illinois Public Service Company et. al.

The students also contacted environmental engineer Thomas Ennis, the man who persuaded city council members to ban coal tar sealants in Austin, Texas, in 2005, and who founded the organization Coal Tar Free America. Ennis’ campaign persuaded retail hardware stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Ace Hardware, and United Hardware, to stop selling coal tar-based sealants.

But coal tar sealants are still commercially available to the pavement coating industry.

By the end of 2018, Pellegrino’s 5th grade students convinced officials in Howard County Maryland to ban the use and sale of coal tar sealants in their community.

Numerous companies that use coal tar to produce sealants to extend the life of weathered asphalt. The danger to children is when coal tar sealants, applied to parking lots and driveways, degrade into dust and get tracked into homes, churches, and businesses. The dust, like the dust that was stirred in Taylorville, Illinois, becomes airborne and is inhaled by everyone who inhabits the home or building. The small lungs of children are threatened most of all from the toxins of coal tar.

The Pavement Coatings Technology Council, the trade association that represents the manufacturers of coal tar sealants and the companies that apply their products, teamed up with the steel industry to lobby politicians to oppose these bans. Being well-funded, they have been successful in defeating efforts to ban coal tar sealants wherever such 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, and 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.”

Now, that manufactured gas plants have disappeared, heating coal to make coke for steel production now generates most of the nation’s coal tar. Steel producers rid themselves of this waste by selling it, like the coal gasification plants did in the 19th and early 20th century.

Two years after I was initially contacted by Eric Pellegrino, I received another phone call from him. It was Friday, February 21, 2020. He informed me that his former students were now in seventh grade and had finally succeeded in having a hearing on a bill to ban coal tar sealants statewide in Maryland. The legislative hearing was scheduled for the following week. The students had persuaded House Delegate Vaughn M. Stewart III to sponsor House Bill 553, called the Safer Sealant Act. “As a two-time cancer survivor and a father to a 15-month-old, this hits close to home for me,” said Stewart in his Facebook post to announce his introduction of the bill. “This bill is especially rewarding for me because I’m working with the Safer Sealants Team, a group of brilliant seventh graders at Manor Middle School in Ellicott City.”

Pellegrino asked if I could provide written testimony in support of the legislation. I told him I would see if I could clear my calendar and fly out to testify in person. Over the weekend, I went back and forth on whether to make the trip. That Wednesday, I was scheduled to attend a meeting on a death penalty case in Lexington, Kentucky. I went to Annapolis instead.

On Tuesday, I caught a flight to Washington D.C.; on the plane I read Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin. Published in 2013, the book won a Pulitzer Prize. Hazardous waste in Toms River was responsible for a sudden outbreak of childhood cancers there. More specifically, it was coal tar being processed by the largest coal tar dye facility in America. The prologue of Fagin’s book tells the story of a neuroblastoma survivor, Michael Gillick, who was born in Toms River in 1979. His mother, Linda Gillick, organized Oceans of Love, a community group similar to the Taylorville Awareness Group (TAG) and If It Were Your Child (IIWYC) of Franklin, Indiana. Mothers banded together after their children developed cancer. Like Brenda May in Taylorville, Illinois, Kari Rhinehart and Stacie Davidson in Franklin, Indiana, Linda Gillick filed a civil lawsuit against the Swiss-based conglomerate Ciba-Geigy Corporation, the coal tar dye manufacturer that polluted the environment of Toms River. A settlement of more than 30 million dollars was distributed to approximately 70 plaintiffs.

It was still early in the morning when I arrived at Reagan National Airport. After renting a car, I turned on the radio and found a station broadcasting live Congressional committee hearings. As I was passing the Capitol Building, the debate was over funding a national response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Democrats were calling for far greater funding than what the White House had proposed. A month earlier, on January 30th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a world emergency, warning world leaders to begin preparations to reduce the spread of the deadly virus.

I headed to Baltimore. My first stop was Ft. McHenry. During the War of 1812, the fort guarding Baltimore Harbor withstood a fierce assault by the formidable British Royal Navy in a battle that gave birth to our national anthem. Francis Scott Key, awoke to see the American Stars and Stripes still flying over the fortress, which inspired him to pen a poem, which he titled Defense of Fort McHenry, describing the battle.

Inside the fort, I received a phone call from Thomas Ennis. We had spoken before. We were both excited about what the children were doing. Their leadership could inspire other young people to engage in democracy to save the environment from fossil fuel pollution.

I then drove to meet the students at Burleigh Manor Middle School. Their 7th grade teacher, Robyn Page, met me when I arrived. She was having the students practice their presentations for tomorrow’s legislative hearing.

All of the years I spent working on the CIPS case had meaning, sitting in a 7th grade classroom, watching as one of the students stood up and displayed a Power Point slide that read “Taylorville, Illinois Neuroblastoma Linked to Coal Tar” that cited a link to my company website.

This Power Point slide was prepared by the students.

After meeting with the students, I headed to Annapolis. It was my first time visiting this historic city. Built in 1784, the Maryland State House is where the Treaty of Paris was signed to officially end the American War of Independence. I was stepping into the original capital of the United States of America for the first year we existed as a democracy.

I met briefly with the students inside the State House. As we walked to the committee hearing room, I gave them some advice to overcome the nervousness I saw in some of the mock presentations the day before. Speaking before a large crowd, filled with lawmakers, TV cameras, and a large gallery of spectators, would be intimidating to children.

I asked, “Have you ever have had an argument with your parents when you tried to prove you were right?”

They nodded their heads, indicating “Oh, yeah.”

“Just pretend, instead of lawmakers, you’re making your argument to your parents.”

The students of Burleigh Middle School

With the hearing called to order, Delegate Stewart introduced the students of Burleigh Middle School. One by one, the students got up from their seats to approach the microphone. Each one spoke eloquently, with conviction, and with science on their side. Many of their parents made the trip to Annapolis, and beamed with pride. The children pointed out that there are safer alternatives to coal tar, like latex-based sealants.

When it came to my turn, I read an excerpt from the chapter of my book called Coal Tar Hair Dyes, which I provided as written testimony. This chapter described the toxicity of coal tar hair dyes, as documented by the U.S. Governmental Accounting Office (GAO) in 1977. I reminded lawmakers of the history of what had happened to Taylorville, Illinois and Morgan City, Louisiana. I explained how Central Illinois Public Service Company and Marine Shale Processors (MSP) exposed two American towns to coal tar, which caused the outbreak of a rare childhood cancer, neuroblastoma, in both cities. It was greed which caused these two corporations to place profits over public health, while dismissing the concerns of scientists who warned what would happen.

I pointed out that the children of Toms River who developed cancer there had also been poisoned by coal tar. The head of the committee interrupted, telling me I needed to conclude my remarks.

I ended by recalling how state health officials in both Illinois and Louisiana had sided with the corporate polluters CIPS and MSP. Then I read this line from that chapter: “The experience of my campaign for the Senate in 1990 left me cynical of government.” I warned the politicians, “Don’t let these children walk away from this hearing room today cynical of their government.”

The last three witnesses to testify were from the coal tar lobby.

The first witness was a middle-aged man who owned a company that uses coal tar sealants to coat driveways, parking lots, and roads. For decades, he said, he was coated “head to toe in coal tar.” He never experienced any adverse health effects. Nevertheless, science tells us his lifetime risk of cancer is significantly higher than most because of his exposure. It may only be a matter of time before cancer develops.

The next witness was a middle-aged woman who represented the Pavement Coatings Technology Council. Her presentation went to great lengths to denigrate the validity of scientific studies issued by people who work for the government, like the report that was written in 2013 by the U.S. Geological Survey. She declared that research studies funded by industry indicate that coal tar sealants have roughly the same level of certain types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as drinking a glass of wine.

Where have I heard that line before?

It sounded a lot like the line from the same playbook CIPS used to convince the people in Taylorville, and their representatives in government, that the excavation of coal tar posed no risk to health. CIPS claimed that the levels of PAHs in coal tar were comparable to eating meat from a charcoal grill.

The last witness to testify was a labor leader who represented the United Steelworkers of America. Coal tar produced as waste from facilities at U.S. Steel are sold and transported to the pavement sealer industry. He made the bold claim that if lawmakers passed this bill, union jobs would be lost among his members who transport coal tar.

That argument led to the bill being tabled the year before. But thanks to Delegate Stewart, who stepped up as a new sponsor, the bill was brought back to life, allowing the voices of the children to be heard.

What are the lives of children worth if their deaths can be prevented?

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 TEACHER in the subject line to

To pre-order copies of the book go to: Release date scheduled for Earth Day April 22, 2021. Copyright © 2021 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 on Earth Day 2021. Before the book is released to the public, the author will send a digital version of the book to educators to use for classroom use. Those who make a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to help Investigating Innocence free more people from prison, will also receive a free digital copy of the book. Go to