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TRNN speaks with EPA whistleblower Marsha Coleman-Adebayo about her journey from bringing the world’s attention to vanadium poisoning to becoming the voice behind the No FEAR Act

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

It’s been dubbed a war on whistleblowers. The Obama administration has aggressively gone after whistleblowers in an unprecedented fashion. President Obama has used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers more than any other president combined.

Now joining us in-studio to discuss this heightened attack against whistleblowers is a whistleblower herself, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. She was a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency when she blew the whistle on how American-owned vanadium mines were poisoning residents of a town in South Africa. She then sued the EPA on the basis of race, sex, color discrimination, and a hostile work environment, and she won. Her case sparked the drafting and eventual passage of the No-FEAR Act in 2002, which discourages federal managers and supervisors from engaging in unlawful discrimination and retaliation.

It’s an honor having you in-studio, Marsha.


DESVARIEUX: And I should mention, Marsha, you also have a book titled No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. And we kind of just want to get into the book and talk about your case. Can you just briefly tell us what happened? You were a senior policy analyst at the EPA.


DESVARIEUX: Then you discovered this U.S. mining company was basically poisoning residents in South Africa. How did this come to your attention?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Well, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, the United States government and the South African government decided to develop a bilateral commission called the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission, or it’s dubbed the Gore-Mbeki Commission. And it was the goal of this commission that–the goal of the commission was to allow the United States government to assist a newly formed South African government to work on a number of different issues, everything from agriculture to environment to commerce.

And so my job was to work with the newly formed Mandela government in the area of environmental protection. And so my job was to transfer technology and knowledge and best practices, at least their U.S. experience, to the South Africans and to determine how we could assist them.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And you sort of–we were discussing this off-camera–you were sort of, like, a Trojan horse, you described your presence there. Can you explain that a bit more?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Certainly. So my job was to work with the ANC leadership, essentially, in the new government. And as a part of that process, I found out that a U.S. multinational corporation was involved in unsafe working conditions in a U.S.-owned mine in South Africa that mines a substance called vanadium pentoxide.

Now, vanadium pentoxide is really at the base of how we run our country and this–how we run this country and why this country operates, because the United States government and industrial society in general is based on a framework of steel. If you look at your buildings, technology, sometimes surgical equipment, cars, trucks, it’s really built on a base of steel. Vanadium is an alloy, so that it’s a substance that when you pour it, when you mix it with steel, it provides steel with flexibilities so that the steel would not crack when it’s under pressure, either hot and cold pressures or just extreme temperatures.

So that it’s–so Henry Ford, for example, had a problem with the Model T in Detroit, because Detroit is an environment where we have very hot environments and very cold environments, and the steel kept cracking in the Model T. And through his communications with a French scientist, he found out that if you mix vanadium in with the steel, that the car–that they would provide the steel with the flexibility to withstand both hot and cold situations.

So our armament, our weaponry systems, televisions, airplanes, forks, knives, everything that we use in this country that has steel in it comes from this small community in South Africa that produces vanadium pentoxide.

DESVARIEUX: So this is a multibillion-dollar industry we’re talking about, this–.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. There are a number of papers, particularly CIA papers, that we have been able to have access to which actually note that vanadium is a substance that the United States government would be willing to commit war in order to make sure that U.S. government had access to this substance.

DESVARIEUX: Wow–commit war. So when you approach your supervisors and you let on that you have found there to be this, the poisoning of the residents, they basically told you to shut up.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: No, no. It wasn’t basically told me to shut up. I was told to shut up. And then I was actually told, you know, look, you know, you’ve got this great position. You know, why do you want to worry about every poor African on the continent? Why don’t you spend your time decorating your office?


COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: And so, clearly, that was really the first salvo, I think, that I should have known that something was wrong, because it was such an outrageous statement to make to a senior policymaker.

But, you know, nevertheless, what you do is you try just to go to another person and sort of navigate through the system. And every single door I went to, it was just shutting in my face.

And, you know, one of the things that we have to be concerned about is this rotating door between industry and government, because you have a lot of people going into government to gather the contacts and to sort of do their sort of outreach. And then, of course, they leave government, they go back into private sector. But while they’re in government, they’re still operating as someone from the private sector.

And in my office that was the same situation, so that we had a lot of people who had come in from the extractive industries who were actually in my office, so that when I started talking about vanadium pentoxide poisoning, they understood exactly what I was talking about, even though at the time I didn’t.

DESVARIEUX: I understand. So how would you describe the culture, then? I mean, I know you’ve said in the past that you’ve equated it to a 20th-century plantation.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Well, when I first arrived at EPA, there were very few black professionals, and so we were in a sense the first generation of black professionals at the EPA. And the culture was such that, yeah, I mean, we understand by law we have to have black professionals at the table, but we certainly don’t expect you to say anything. And so we kept, you know, sort of hitting this screen door where people would look at us like, you know, who invited you to say anything at the meeting? You’re supposed to just sit there as a token. And so we had a lot of problems, particularly when it came to issues that we were so passionate about, like Africa, the Caribbean, global warming, and issues that really impact our community–you know, neurotoxic levels of lead in the brain of young black kids. We wanted to make our contributions and we were determined to do that, and every step of the way we were being smacked down.

DESVARIEUX: And the EPA, I know, has been also equated to sort of this mafia, this, like, shadow organization. And it’s interesting, because I think the impression that a lot of people have of the EPA is they’re safeguarding our water and, you know, our environment and this is one of those great agencies that we should really be championing. But you’re saying the culture in there doesn’t reflect that at all.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: It’s very much a corporate culture. And when I first arrived at EPA, it was not unusual to have someone from Dow Chemical sitting at a desk in the corner in the same office that you were in who was also writing environmental policy. And so, you know, for a while–it took me a while to sort of, you know, get a handle on who was a government official and who was from the private sector in the very office.

And so, you know, I’m sure you’ve read a lot of history of EPA where in fact there have been congressional hearings about industry leaders actually writing environmental policy, sending it to EPA for their comments, and then EPA promulgating those as rules. So it took a while for me to to understand that this agency, in terms of a Trojan horse, that in fact there was very little difference between corporate interests, interests of the pesticides industry, interests–you know, the mineral extractive industries and what was happening at EPA. And whenever there was a conflict between what was good for industry and what was good for the people, industry almost always won.

DESVARIEUX: Industry almost always won.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Almost always won.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And you battled with the EPA for many years, but you’re actually still battling with the EPA, even though your lawsuit is over. Can you just fill us in on what’s happening now?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Well, I won the largest lawsuit ever against the EPA, because the treatment that I received was so in many ways unbelievable for people. I mean, I was called, you know, every, you know, racial name that you can imagine. I was called every sexual name that you can imagine. And oftentimes it was in open meetings, so that there were so many witnesses around when people were calling me these horrible names.

And then, when I refused to submit or become intimidated, then the agency started really ratcheting up the intimidation. I started getting threatening calls at my desk, particularly the closer I got to trial, like, you know, don’t be surprised when you put your foot on the pedal, when you turn on your ignition, you get a big bang. There was a call at my house once. Someone described what my–I think it was my son was wearing outside my house. So the intimidation was pretty terrifying.

And so through it all, you know, I made a decision, as I think all whistleblowers do, that this was not the country I wanted to live in unless it had the potential to change. And so we started on this process of winning the lawsuit, which I did. And then after I won–and I won pretty big, and I won so big, at least, that everyone had to pay attention to it. And I wouldn’t say heads rolled, because as you probably know that when you lose a lawsuit at the EPA, the other message they send to managers is that we will protect you. And so all the managers were promoted who I named in my lawsuit.

DESVARIEUX: They were all promoted.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: They were all promoted who–yeah, they were all promoted.

But nevertheless, Congress convened two hearings, and a law was introduced and eventually passed which became the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century, called No-FEAR. And that really is what it’s going to take for people to take on this system. And “no fear” doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid. It just means that you don’t allow fear to stop you from doing what you need to do.

DESVARIEUX: Yes. Yes. But the EPA now is asking for your emails, because you wrote this revealing book and things of that nature.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Right. Exactly. Well, after I won my lawsuit, a couple of years later EPA fired me. And when you think about it, they really did have to fire me, because they could not allow that kind of victory to stay on the books at EPA in fear that other people might try to emulate what I did. And so they absolutely, I think, in their own twisted way, had to sort of–for them, this book ended with the firing of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

And so I decided that that was not my particular ending. And so I filed another suit against the EPA on the basis of firing me for engaging in protected activity. And so we’re winding our way through the court system. It’s now, like, the 13th year since I filed that lawsuit. And so I think we’ll probably go to court March 2014.

But in the process of going to court, EPA has now ordered me to answer deposition questions. And, of course, the questions that they’re asking me have absolutely nothing to do with the lawsuit. And so they’re asking me questions like, who helped you read your book, or did someone help write your book, and did you talk to anyone while you were in the process of writing your book, and if you did, name that person, provide their contact information, provide the names of anyone you spoke to when you wrote your book. So what they’re trying to build is like a pyramid of everyone that I spoke to and worked with as I wrote the book. And that’s a way of intimidating not just me but intimidating everyone that I work with.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, Marsha, please hang tight. We are going to have part two of this conversation with Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

Thank you, Marsha, so much for joining us.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: You’re welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo received her BA degree from Barnard College/Columbia University and her doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblower's Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA.

Dr. Coleman-Adebayo was a Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of the Administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. She has held various academic positions as Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University _ School of Foreign Studies and Visiting Scholar in the Department of African-American Studies at George Mason University.

On August 18, 2000, Dr. Coleman-Adebayo won an historic lawsuit against the EPA on the basis of race, sex, color discrimination, and a hostile work environment. She subsequently testified before Congress on two occasions. As a result, the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act [No FEAR] was introduced by Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee ( D-TX) and Senator John Warner (R- VA). Along with the No FEAR Coalition, she ushered the No FEAR Bill through Congress. President George W. Bush signed the No FEAR Act into law. Thousands of federal workers and their families have directly benefited from this law. She serves as a producer on the dramatic film: No FEAR!