Taking On the EPA

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is an African American graduate of Barnard College and MIT.

She worked for years at the Environmental Protection Agency.

And paradoxically, she thinks more highly of former EPA head William Reilly – a white male Republican – than she does of Carol Browner – a white woman Democrat – or the current head of the EPA – Lisa Jackson – an African American woman.

Because of Coleman-Adebayo’s history at the agency, this is remarkable.

She sued the agency for race and sex discrimination and won the largest yet jury verdict – $600,000 – against the EPA in such a case.

In the wake of that lawsuit, she worked to pass a whistleblower protection law – the No Fear Act – and stood behind President George Bush as he signed the bill into law at the White House.

And she is currently suing the EPA for wrongful termination. Settlement negotiations broke off last week when Lisa Jackson refused to settle.

The case is going to trial soon, according to Coleman-Adebayo.

She lays out her story in a new book – No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011, with a forward by Noam Chomsky).

Coleman-Adebayo came to the EPA with Republican Reilly. But she was pleased with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.

“I liked Bill Reilly,” Coleman-Adebayo told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I thought he was extremely committed to the environment. But members of my family for generations have been Democrats. I was actually quite happy when the Democrats came to power. And certainly I was one of thousands of people inside EPA celebrating when the Democrats took power from the Republicans.”

And when Carol Browner was appointed to head the EPA?

“I was delighted,” she says. “One – she was a young woman. We were about the same age. She had a reputation for being committed to the environment. And she was a Democrat.”

“I was being called a lot of distasteful names. And as soon as Carol Browner’s staff was in place, I went to the administrator’s office and I told them what was happening to me, about the names I was being called. They promised me that under their administration, this kind of behavior would stop.”

Did it stop?

“No,” Coleman-Adebayo says. “It didn’t stop. The name calling did not stop. But I still felt that there were people who were more open to discussion, more open to dialogue under Browner than I had found under the Republicans.”

“So while things had not totally eased up for me, the openness that I initially experienced was better.”

“Here’s an example. There was a conference being held in Beijing, China – the Fourth UN Conference on Women.”

“I spoke to my supervisors about it. Everybody thought it was the most ridiculous idea ever to waste precious EPA resources on such a conference.”

“I was appalled at that kind of discussion. And I went to Browner’s office. And I found people there who were receptive. In fact, Browner herself overturned a decision by my supervisor and assigned me the position of agency coordinator for women’s issues and the coordinator for the Fourth UN Conference on Women.”

“My guess is that never would have happened under the Republicans, not even with Bill Reilly.”

“Browner became head of the EPA to a large extent because women were pressing this administration to promote more women to higher level positions.”

“Browner rode in as head of the EPA on that good will of women’s organizations. And one of her first opportunities to show and thank women for the support they provided her was to support the Beijing Conference on Women.”

The initial signs were good.

“But after the Beijing Conference, things started to go downhill for me,” she said.

“I tried to reach out to Carol Browner after that conference to try to get to her, but she was very cold and distant about it.”

“Once the people around me realized that I didn’t have the ear of the administrator, all of the other behavior – the name calling, the threats – re-emerged. At this point, there was no one to help me.”

“A good example is after I returned from Beijing, after getting recommendations from Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and Carol Browner herself, I was the only person in my office who did not receive a bonus.”

“In the U.S. government, bonuses are not that big. They are given as a symbolic gesture, as a way of the agency saying – job well done. They are not like the Wall Street bonuses. These are federal government bonuses – maybe $2,000 or $3,000. They are symbolic. They are important in the context of that culture.”

“I found out that I was the only professional in my office that did not receive a bonus. One of my colleagues said to me – the lights have gone off after Beijing. Carol Browner is not going to save you. Now you are back here with us.”

In 1995, Coleman-Adebayo filed a sex and race discrimination lawsuit against the EPA. And five years later a jury awarded her $600,000 – the highest such award ever against the EPA.

“We have a ceiling for federal government workers – so it was reduced to $300,000,” Coleman-Adebayo said.

Coleman-Adebayo was appointed to the Gore-Mbeki Commission. The goal of the Commission was to assist the South African government from the impact of decades of white racist rule in South Africa.

Coleman-Adebayo took her job seriously. She was approached with information about a Union Carbide vanadium pentoxide mine in South Africa.

“I was told by Jacob Ngkane, who was a union representative to this small community, that the health effects to this community were devastating,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “Within six months to a year, a significant number of the men were impotent. These were young men in the prime of their lives. I was told that they would start bleeding from every orifice in their body – their eyes, their ears. They defecated blood, they urinated blood. I was told that they developed terrible cancers – cancer of the esophagus, cancer of the liver.”

But when she went to her supervisors at the Commission, they did nothing.

“The Commission could have written about it,” she said. “We could have picked up the phone and called Union Carbide and said – we understand there is this situation in South Africa. Could you look into it and get back to us? There are a number of informal processes that could have taken place.”

Instead what did they do?

“They removed me,” she said.

When she raised the issue at the EPA, she was told to “shut up.”

“When I heard about it, I wasn’t sure how to handle his demand that we do something about this community that was being poisoned by a US multinational,” she said. “When I spoke to my supervisor about this, I was told to shut up. Literally told to shut up.”

“When I asked her – why are you telling me to shut up? – she told me – shut up. She said – Marsha, you have a brand new, nice large office. Why don’t you spend your time decorating your office as opposed to worrying about this?”

“It was very curious that I would tell a supervisor at the EPA that there were reports of a community being poisoned by a US multinational and her response to me was to shut up. I went to my husband who is an engineer. He started researching the issue and came back to me with information about the use of vanadium pentoxide. He explained that it was a strategic mineral. He said – look around the room – the television, the forks and knives, the refrigerator, the stove – it was in everything.”

When Barack Obama was elected President on November 3, 2008, he appointed Carol Browner as his EPA transition chief.

“I was fired two weeks later,” Coleman-Adebayo says.

She has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the EPA. It will go to trial soon.

She now believes she was better off under Bill Reilly than under Carol Browner.

“No question about that,” she says “When Carol Browner became head of the transition, the team included Lisa Jackson.”

“To a large extent, there is no correlation between the color or gender of someone and whether or not these people truly embody the nobility of believing in justice.”

Russell Mokhiber edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.




[For the complete transcript of the Interview with Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, see 25 Corporate Crime Reporter 40, October 24, 2011,print edition only.]


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Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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