The High Cost of Being an EPA Whistleblower

How an agency employee spoke out against government corruption, faced retaliation and triumphed.

Courtesy of Barnard

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo vividly recalls a meeting during her early days at the Environmental Protection Agency. It was 1992, and the MIT-trained African-development expert was one of two black employees in the mostly white, mostly male senior ranks. "Come on in, Marsha," her supervisor beckoned as she arrived at the conference room. "We'll make you an honorary white man so you can join us."

Another exasperating memory is that of returning from maternity leave to find that a far less experienced white man had become her boss. When she complained, she said her supervisor responded, "You're an intelligent woman; you knew how not to get pregnant. How can you make that decision and expect to compete with men?"

According to Coleman-Adebayo, such comments were routine. "The EPA was just beginning to open its doors to black professionals when I arrived, so they were really grappling with how to interact with African Americans," she told The Root, adding that her protests were met with accusations of being too sensitive. "But all of that paled in comparison to my problems once I filed a lawsuit."

That 1996 discrimination lawsuit would eventually expose an even grimmer story: an EPA cover-up of deplorable working conditions for South African miners poisoned by vanadium in a mine owned by a U.S. multinational. After she told her superiors about poisoned workers with gruesome ailments, including green tongues and bleeding from every orifice, they showed little concern, ordering her to stop talking about it immediately.

In Coleman-Adebayo's new book, No Fear: The Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA, she details the pressure, name-calling and death threats that she says she received after refusing to keep quiet. Her testimony in her discrimination case eventually resulted in the passage of the No FEAR Act, which protects federal whistleblowers from victimization.

"I made a commitment to the South African miners and their families that I would tell their stories. I also wanted to do something to stop the abuse and retaliation against people like me who spoke up when we saw wrongdoing," she said of the No FEAR Act. "We passed the law at the same time as 9/11, so there was very little acknowledgment -- but this struggle can't continue to be a footnote of history."

A Shocking Discovery

Coleman-Adebayo's assignment in South Africa began with promise. She was selected to be the EPA's White House liaison for the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission, informally called the Gore-Mbeki Commission. The delegation had the lofty goal of helping the Nelson Mandela government make the transition from apartheid to democracy.

"The goal of the Gore-Mbeki Commission's environment committee, which I led, was to work with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, to help it focus on the needs of people living in townships," she said. "These were extremely poor people who had been so devastated by apartheid."

While she was working with the commission, men and women approached her with stories of an American vanadium-mining company, Union Carbide, where workers were experiencing strange symptoms. Their tongues were turning bright green. They bled from their eyes, ears and genitals. A black substance seeped from their skin. A study conducted later found that vanadium exposure made men impotent.