The High Cost of Being an EPA Whistleblower
How an agency employee spoke out against government corruption, faced retaliation and triumphed.
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.
"Vanadium is an extremely toxic mineral," said Coleman-Adebayo, explaining that it's also highly valuable, used to strengthen steel and found in products all around us. "It undergirds Western society. It's in everything from surgical supplies to forks and knives to airplanes to ovens and refrigerators. It allows us to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that we have in the West. We're using vanadium in smart bombs in Afghanistan -- and 80 percent of all South African vanadium comes to the United States. But what people don't realize is that it's the blood of victims in South Africa that provides it."
Horrified, she reported the situation to her superiors. "They told me to shut up," she said. "I had just moved into a new office, and my supervisor said to me, 'Why don't you spend your time decorating your office instead of worrying about all this?' "
As Coleman-Adebayo persisted in drawing attention to vanadium victims, sending letters to then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner, supervisors expressed concern that she identified too closely with black South Africans. "They said I needed to understand who my friends were and which team I was on," she said. "I had to make a choice between black South Africans and a team that could possibly take me to a different place in my career." She was eventually taken off the commission.
The Investigation Begins
Although Coleman-Adebayo no longer worked on African issues for the EPA, she remained with the agency in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. She also returned to South Africa in 1998 -- on a personal trip, using her own funds. She brought along two girlfriends, both African-American doctors, to help further study vanadium poisoning.
They interviewed hundreds of families, many whose relatives had died, capturing their stories on videotape and documenting the recurring symptoms of what locals called "green tongue": kidney and liver failure, asthma, bronchitis and cancers. "We found out that not only were the men in the mines experiencing these terrible environmental impacts, but they brought the vanadium home to their wives and children," she said. "The women were washing the uniforms with their bare hands, with their babies tied to their backs."