High Price Of Blowing The Whistle On EPA Marsha Coleman-Adebayo served as a high-ranking black woman at the Environmental Protection Agency. She faced racism and sexism, then dealt with retaliation when calling out the EPA's failure to fulfill commitments made overseas. She speaks with guest host Jacki Lyden about her new book No Fear. This conversation contains sensitive content that may not be suitable for younger audiences.
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High Price Of Blowing The Whistle On EPA

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High Price Of Blowing The Whistle On EPA

High Price Of Blowing The Whistle On EPA

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JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, sitting in for Michel Martin.

Just ahead, they say that nice guys finish last and a new study may prove that to be true, at least on payday. We'll talk about how being nice can affect your salary. That's in a bit.

But first, a new book about fighting the wrongs in government and the courage it took to right them. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo started working at the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990. She was a high ranking federal worker with a doctoral degree from MIT and an expertise in South Africa.

The agency made commitments to help the region, but she says failed to follow through. Matters became worse the harder Adebayo pushed for change. And as if that struggle wasn't enough, she had to defend herself against racism and sexism as a black woman.

Her new book, "No Fear: The Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA," describes her experiences and the discrimination lawsuit that followed. The ordeal culminated in the passing of the No Fear Act.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo joins me now to talk about her tell-all book and a program note here. This conversation contains graphic descriptions of some disturbing medical symptoms. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, welcome to the program.

MARSHA COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Thank you very much for having me.

LYDEN: This book is absolutely fascinating. And in it, you talk about your experiences at the EPA and how the discrimination you faced led to the creation and passage of this No Fear Act in 2002. And I thought that, perhaps before we got into the story, you might explain what the No Fear Act is.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Well, the No Fear Act is a very important piece of legislation. Every two years, federal employees must take No Fear training and upon going into the federal government or entering federal service, within 90 days, you must be trained in No Fear legislation.

Every single federal government website, the White House, the CIA, State Department, has a No Fear icon on the front page of the website, which will bring you to sort of an interesting explanation of what's going on inside the federal government in terms of race and sex discrimination, as well as whistleblower retaliation.

LYDEN: So your story really has two parts. You describe facing discrimination as a black woman in a government agency. And then later, you write about facing retaliation when you blew the whistle on the EPA. Let's go back to the early 1990s when you joined the EPA, and give us some examples of what you experienced then.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Very demeaning treatment. I'd walk into a staff meeting and my supervisor would say, you know, we'll make Marsha an honorary white man so that she can join the meeting today. After I had my daughter, I came back to find that another man had been promoted to be my supervisor. And when I questioned why he was now my supervisor, I was told, well, you know, you're an intelligent woman. You know how to not get pregnant, so why do you think that women should be able to compete in the workplace when they decide to have children?

I faced more serious problems, however. Once I filed a lawsuit, I was treated to death threats, to rape threats. My family was endangered. And so, for me, working at the EPA was a very harrowing experience.

LYDEN: You talk about how your workplace became even more hostile. You just mentioned when you faced retaliation after filing that lawsuit, but why did you blow the whistle and how did the agency respond then?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: I was the EPA liaison to the White House during the Gore-Mbeki Commission. It was the flagship foreign policy vehicle to usher in the Mandela government. And I was privileged enough to be the EPA liaison in that process to the White House. And I found out about a community in South Africa that was being poisoned by a US multinational corporation and the symptomology of the vanadium miners was that their tongues turn a bright green.

LYDEN: Vanadium is what was being mined?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Vanadium is the substance or the mineral that's being mined. And their tongues turn a bright green and they bleed from every orifice of their body. They bleed from their eyes and their ears and the genitals. It's a really absolutely horrendous situation.

And when I reported the situation to my supervisors, I was literally told to shut up. And in fact, my supervisor went on to say, look, we just promoted you to a great new office. Why don't you spend your time decorating your office. I just simply could not look the other way. And so I decided that I needed to bring attention to this issue.

LYDEN: Who were some of the people who were retaliating against you?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: All my supervisors. But not only that, we reached out to the head of the EPA, Carol Browner at the time, who later became, under President Obama, the energy czar. But we reached out to Carol Browner, as well as all of her underlings. You know, my attorneys wrote and said, look, this is a real problem. She's being retaliated against because she's bringing to the agency a very serious problem.

And instead of dealing with both the race and sex, as well as the problem that I had found out about in South Africa, I was basically just forced out of the office and the project that I was working on was terminated.

LYDEN: And you were taken off that commission?


LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

And I'm speaking with author and activist, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo about her new book, "No Fear." Marsha, while discrimination at work was a large part of your story, we also spoke of what was going on in South Africa, the poisoning that you discovered. And I know that you have an excerpt that really captures what you were fighting for. It's very dramatic. Would you please read it to us?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: With pleasure.

(Reading) They came to me complaining of green tongues. They told me about bleeding from every orifice. Their husbands could no longer perform. The sheet on his side of the bed would be black in the morning from whatever it was that oozed from his pores while he tried to sleep. Some had only photographs of their husbands who had died at the age of 50, but had looked like 95. There were reports of many dead and more dying. The company would not help. The company would not even let them see their own X-rays. It was an American company, so they had come to me. For them, I was America. I worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

LYDEN: Now, you were very, very excited to be at the EPA. What was more shocking to you, the EPA's response to your reports of poisoning or the way you were treated as an African-American woman?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: I think both. Every single step of the way, it was almost as though I was sort of reliving and experiencing just the level of cruelty and dysfunction at the agency. I mean, I had come from, you know, working at the United Nations and I had been a university professor. And so, I was used to really working extremely hard and loving what I do. And I was surprised that, in the environment at the EPA, instead of being rewarded for being proficient in what you do, loyalty was a much greater value at the agency.

When I began to question U.S. policy, I was considered disloyal. And at that point, in the minds of many people at the EPA, I had become their enemy. And the body politic around whistleblowing is that when you become, quote, unquote, "the enemy," the only exercise that's really left before the agency is how they're going to get rid of you. So, unfortunately, this community in South Africa has been left without any advocates.

LYDEN: You sued Carol Browner, the EPA administrator at the time. You won your lawsuit. You continued to work at the EPA for another nine years. Why did you put up with that discrimination in the first place and continue to work there?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: I decided that the EPA was an important institution in American society, that we need an institution in this country that is dedicated to eradicating the health effects of pollution in this country. And I made a decision to really dig in, and I refused to leave until we had created space inside of federal agencies so that people could speak out when they saw wrongdoing.

LYDEN: You won your case in 2000. You were fired in 2009. What do you hope will come out of this book?

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Well, this book is a part of my whistleblowing. It certainly is a part of my activism. And I'm hoping that students from across the country will take up this charge and they will investigate and find out about vanadium poisoning. But I'm also hoping that what this book will show just average, everyday people is that they really can make a difference. We can empower our communities and we can begin to fight for justice in very concrete and real ways and we can have victories in our lifetime.

LYDEN: Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of "No Fear: A Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA." She joined us from our Washington, D.C. studio. It's a remarkable story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

COLEMAN-ADEBAYO: Thank you very much for having me.

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