Author Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

The author of No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA shares the story of what she calls “one of the darkest days at the EPA.”

After earning her doctorate at MIT, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo landed her dream job at the U.S. EPA. But, the experience turned into a nightmare and a subsequent two-year battle with Congress over the need to protect whistleblowers. The grassroots campaign that she organized resulted in the passage of the first civil rights law of the 21st century. Coleman-Adebayo has held various academic positions and serves on the board of the National Whistleblower Center. She chronicles her involvement with the EPA and her work with vanadium mine workers in South Africa in her book, No Fear.


Tavis: Marsha Coleman-Adebayo was a senior policy analyst at the EPA when she discovered that a U.S. mining company was poisoning residents in a town in South Africa. When she brought this case to the attention of her superiors at the EPA she was told to shut up and then denied a promotion.

But then she did not, thankfully, back down, and her courageous efforts led to the passage of the No Fear Act, which protects whistleblowers like herself today. The new book about her ordeal is called “No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA.” She joins us tonight from Washington. Marsha, thank you, thank you, thank you, and good to have you on this program.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Tavis: When I was saying thank you, I’m talking about your courage, your conviction and your commitment to this issue, and I appreciate that on behalf of all Americans. Thank you for speaking up.

Coleman-Adebayo: Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking who specifically contacted you from South Africa and what symptoms were these persons being afflicted with?

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, first of all thank you so much for having me on your show. I was contacted by a South Africa union official named Jacob Ngakane, who I was working with in my official capacity. We had brought him to the United States to study environmental protection policies.

He approached me and told me that a U.S. multinational corporation was involved in the poisoning of a small community in South Africa by vanadium pentoxide, which is a very toxic element.

The symptoms are really quite severe. Within the first six months to a year the miners become – the particular male miners become impotent. Their tongues turn a bright green, sometimes black, sometimes brown, but mostly green. In final stages they bleed from every orifice so their bodies, they bleed from their eyes and their ears. They defecate blood, they urinate blood. So this is a very toxic substance.

Tavis: So you were contacted by the union. They told you about what was happening. Did you then take a trip to South Africa? How did you get firsthand evidence, not just over the telephone? How did you get the evidence that you would later take to your superiors?

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, I obviously took this information to my superiors. This one particular supervisor told me to shut up, and rather than concern myself with these issues I should decorate my office. When I refused to do that I was actually able to – I was the EPA representative to the Gore-Mbeki commission, which was a White House initiative at the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s administration. My job was to work with the new South African environmental leadership, to help them transition from apartheid to democracy.

Tavis: Let me just jump in right quick. We should say when she says Gore-Mbeki, it’s a very high-level commission. Gore, of course, refers to Al Gore, then the United States vice president, and Mbeki refers to Thabo Mbeki, who was then the vice president of South Africa, who went on to become president.

Coleman-Adebayo: Right.

Tavis: So the two vice presidents of these nations had established a commission to look at a variety of issues, and that’s the commission you were referencing. But go ahead, I’m sorry.

Coleman-Adebayo: Yeah, that’s exactly correct, it was a very high-level commission and every six months we met alternatively in the United States or South Africa. I was actually able to get the commission to authorize an independent investigation of vanadium poisoning.

But when I tried to implement the decree of the commission, every obstacle was placed in my way and the investigation never took place. When I continued to push and refused to stop talking about what I had heard, I was removed from the commission. I was removed as the executive secretary and then actually sort of booted out of the office into another program office at EPA.

But I just simply could not get the stories out of my mind in terms of the stories that I’d heard about what was happening to this community in South Africa, so I was able to get a couple of girlfriends who are medical doctors to travel with me on our own, using our own resources, to travel to South Africa, and we conducted our own investigation of vanadium poisoning.

Tavis: Fair to say that at the time of your being removed from this high-level commission that Al Gore and Mr. Mbeki were in charge of, fair to say that the White House had been apprised of your concerns, that they were aware of these issues?

Coleman-Adebayo: Yeah, there’s no question about that. In fact, one day I came into my office and there was a folder on my desk because Randall Robinson, the former head of TransAfrica, had written to Vice President Gore about this situation, and there was a folder on my desk asking for – the White House essentially requested to see any communications between EPA and Randall Robinson before we sent the information back to him.

So the White House was clearly abreast of what was going on. They were clearly informed of what was going on. At first I was really hoping that that was a good indication that perhaps something positive would happen as a result of that, but of course, nothing happened.

Tavis: I’m not asking this question sarcastically, but we know Al Gore as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. We know him as Mr. Environment. We know him as Mr. Inconvenient Truth. How is it that Al Gore, of all people, could have been aware of this, as you lay out in the book, and you were still told by your bosses at the EPA to go sit down somewhere?

Coleman-Adebayo: It’s so disappointing that it was one of the really darkest days at EPA, because I remember having that flickering of hope that now the White House has been apprised of this and that maybe they’ll break through and tell the folks at EPA to back off and to let’s go to South Africa and save this community, but in fact just the opposite happened.

I should also tell you that the vice president’s office was also apprised of the racial and sexual climate that we survived in at the EPA by the NAACP and just like South Africa, absolutely nothing happened as a result of their knowledge.

Tavis: So I’m fast-forwarding here, given the time that I have to talk about the issue, but interestingly, the Democrats and the Clinton White House at the time, the Democrats running the EPA at the time wanted to keep this thing quiet, or if not keep it quiet just not give any attention to it.

Interestingly, a Republican member of Congress ends up being your champion on this legislation, on this issue. Tell me more about James Sensenbrenner and the role he played.

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, the role he played was that he was prepared to talk to us, seriously provide an entre into the political process on this issue, but I also have to give enormous kudos to Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, because unless Sheila had partnered with James Sensenbrenner, the law would have died. But it was the Sensenbrenner-Jackson Lee partnership that allowed the bill to pass through Congress unanimously on both the House and the Senate side, and this was the first time ever that a civil rights law had passed Congress unanimously.

Tavis: What do you make, in retrospect of the journey you had to endure to get that law on the books, signed, interestingly, by the president who followed Bill Clinton in the White House, George Bush?

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, it wasn’t only that I had to endure a lot of bureaucratic problems. I endured death threats, I endured rape threats. So these were very personal attacks against me and my family that I endured.

But it wasn’t just me. The beauty of the story is that so many federal government workers joined me in this incredible fight to pass the No Fear Act. Some of these employees were fired; some of them lost their homes their families. We suffered a number of casualties in this battle.

There were two people that I can think of immediately that actually died in the process of trying to get the law passed. So this was a movement. This was a battle that we as a group came together. It was a singular moment in time where federal government said, “There’s something more than just my paycheck. We are staring history in the face and we cannot fail.” Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Tavis: I just want to jump in right quick – what were the authorities, Mr. Mbeki on down, what were the authorities in South Africa saying about what this U.S. company was doing to its citizens?

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, there’s a problem, because 80 percent of South Africa’s GDP comes from the extractive industry, and so to a large extent their economy is built upon the mining process.

Tavis: Right.

Coleman-Adebayo: So when you have a whole economy that’s built upon extractive industry – and almost all extractive industries are harmful to the environment, certainly harmful to human health – we didn’t get much of a reaction, quite frankly.

Tavis: Danny Glover, your friend, my friend, has optioned the rights to this.

Coleman-Adebayo: Yes.

Tavis: So this will, I expect, become a movie in Hollywood?

Coleman-Adebayo: That is our prayer. We’re working very hard to translate the book now into a movie and we’ve received quite a bit of interest in doing so, yes.

Tavis: It’s not lost on me that I’m looking on this satellite monitor at a Black woman who was fighting on behalf of Africans, Black Africans in South Africa who were being harmed by a U.S. company.

Not lost on me that we now have an African American president, not lost on me that the EPA has its first African American director, a woman named Lisa Jackson.

Coleman-Adebayo: Yes.

Tavis: So give me the top line on how this administration is doing on environmental issues, as you see it.

Coleman-Adebayo: Well, unfortunately we’ve just had a major setback on environmental matters when the president decided to ask Lisa Jackson to step down on the clean air regulations, and according to the EPA statistics, that would mean about 720,000 deaths, about 11,000 emergency room visits and about 38,000 acute attacks of asthma or bronchitis as a result of backing down on the clean air regulations.

So as a result of that, I’ve really been inspired by the Occupy movement, and I’ve already led one demonstration against the EPA, asking the president to reverse his decision on clean air.

There’s one issue that unites all of humanity, and that is that we need clean air to be healthy. So we’re asking the president to please reverse his decision. We can’t afford to leave 7,200 people; we can’t afford to allow them to die for absolutely no good reason except that we’re appeasing business. So we’ve asked the president to please reverse his decision on the Clean Air Act.

Tavis: This is the face of the woman who made it possible for all federal employees now to be protected if and when they see things being done that need to be raised to the attention of the American people.

Her name, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. Her new book is called “No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA,” with a forward by Noam Chomsky. Marsha, thank you again for your work, thank you for your witness, thank you for the book and thank you for coming on the program.

Coleman-Adebayo: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Thank you.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm