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Why a Woman of Color Risked Her “Honorary White Man” Status to Blow the Whistle at EPA

(Photo: Emydidae / Flickr)

I met Marsha Coleman-Adebayo in 1990 in Washington, DC. She was working for the World Wildlife Fund, an international environmental organization. Coleman-Adebayo was an analyst focusing on issues of Africa. Not long after I met her, she joined the Office of International Activities (OIA) of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I was also working for EPA. In fact, in 1994, my organization, the Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances, detailed me to OIA for one year.

Coleman-Adebayo and I collaborated on a number of issues, especially assisting EPA in handling the important and delicate international health problem of women and the environment. Were women more sensitive to toxins and pollution than men? Did conventional environmental protection include women in its policies? These complex questions preoccupied the 1995 international conference in Beijing.

Working with Coleman-Adebayo for a year gave me the opportunity to understand that this African-American woman, holding a doctorate in political sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had the virtues of a great education and a commitment to the well being of humankind. She loved Africa. She married a Nigerian engineering professor, Segun Adebayo. She respected my Greek culture and my knowledge of history and science.

I dug into the issue of women and the environment and, not surprisingly, the picture was and remains blurred. Like children, women were being hit with the brunt of global pollution. EPA tested mothers' milk in the late 1970s and found the milk contaminated by DDT-like poisons and other toxins. Women's biology makes them more vulnerable to hormone-like poisons; their work at home exposes them to substances trapped in the house, sometimes several times more deleterious than the polluted air of the atmosphere outside their homes.

In addition to searching the scientific literature for answers, I also talked to EPA colleagues all over the country. Then I wrote a memo on the unsettling results, recommending that the EPA administrator, Carol Browner, and the head of my office, Lynn Goldman, take the findings seriously and do something about the issue. But my “ecofeminist” memo caused anger instead of enlightenment, especially among senior women managers. “How dare you presume to know what Browner and Goldman ought to do?” they shouted.

I offer this story as an example of what it was to be an analyst with an environmental/public-health vision at EPA – in the 1990s or at any other time. Like me, Coleman-Adebayo wanted to do good: put EPA on the side of protecting people and nature from the toxic assault of industry.

But she also had a passion for Africa, and when, on March 1, 1995, the United States established the Gore-Mbeki commission, promising South Africa ways and means for facilitating a transition from apartheid to democracy, Marsha thought she would become an instrument for providing South Africa a modicum of technical assistance for health protection.

Her African contacts alerted her to the dangers of mining vanadium at Brits, South Africa. Vametco, an American subsidiary of Union Carbide, was extracting vanadium, which the CIA classified as a strategic metal for the United States. Vanadium was certainly an asset to American industry and the military, but getting it out of Africa was poisoning and killing African workers.

Jacob Ngakane, a South African black man representing the ailing vanadium workers, told Coleman-Adebayo that South Africa has “vast reserves” of vanadium, which is mined in pits. “Open, gaping wounds are carved into the earth,” he said. “The workers in the [vanadium] mines are being poisoned … They bleed from their eyes, their noses, their genitals, their colons. These same young men become impotent from working in the mines. Their tongues turn green.”

Vanadium also wrecked Coleman-Adebayo's career. She desperately wanted to believe that the United States, through the EPA, could and should help the ailing vanadium workers, perhaps make the mining process less toxic. But she learned rather quickly that EPA, like the rest of the US government, had been captured by the companies it was supposed to regulate.

Coleman-Adebayo's efforts to offer minimal EPA funding for an orphanage for the children of those who died during the war against apartheid did not go anywhere. EPA reneged on its promise to offer technical assistance to the vanadium mines in South Africa.

Coleman-Adebayo's supervisors mocked her, hinting that she had the option of being with them or against them. Her boss even baptized Coleman-Adebayo an “honorary white man.”

Within less than two years of the Gore-Mbeki commission coming into effect, in December 1996, Coleman-Adebayo received an unsatisfactory evaluation by her supervisor, the first blow on the way to being fired in the federal government. Coleman-Adebayo called the unsatisfactory performance rating “a white phosphorus flare.”

But she fought back. She sued EPA for racism and retaliation – and she won. An embarrassed Congress wanted to give us the illusion it did not approve of the silencing of whistleblowers like Coleman-Adebayo, so it passed the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation (NO FEAR) Act of 2002. President George W. Bush, an enemy of the environment and public health, signed this bill into law.

But the conflict between Coleman-Adebayo and EPA continued until 2008, when EPA fired her.

The result of this struggle is Coleman-Adebayo's book: “No Fear: A Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA” (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011).

It is an interesting, inspiring and well-written book; the story it tells is revealing of larger national environmental and political issues. It is a microcosm of racism in American society, callousness and imperialism in foreign policy, and corporate domination of the government and the world.

Coleman-Adebayo also interweaves these larger stories with accounts from her personal life. For example, she recounts her days at MIT, where Noam Chomsky – probably America's foremost intellectual and political critic of US foreign policy – was one of her dissertation advisors. Chomsky also wrote the foreword for the book.

At the EPA, Marsha details the warfare all around her, the vicious little minds, the political appointees and their cronies lording over the vast number of decent federal workers.

This book mirrors American society. Bill Clinton was the president and Al Gore the vice-president. Clinton and Gore, and their appointees at EPA and the rest of the government, handled South Africa badly, exacerbating the corporatist trends among the leaders of the new, post-apartheid South Africa.

Coleman-Adebayo trenchantly goes to the core of those bad policies as they manifested both abroad and at home. She gives an insider's rare view of the alien universe of how the government works, or, more accurately, how a few politically motivated bureaucrats, beholden to money and the president, drag the government along in the traces of corporate power.

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