Red Willow is a flightless yet fearless family member
September 28, 2017
Legislative Session: 09-28-2017
September 29, 2017

Environmental sustainability specialist Jeff Tompkins finds revenue in tribal trash

Jeff Tompkins

With more than 50 public-facing businesses and tribal departments, Citizen Potawatomi Nation produces its fair share of trash and refuse, measuring in the tons. When it can’t be recycled through the tribe’s nascent recycling programs, CPN pays outside waste management firms to haul the garbage away, a cost that impacts the bottom line of tribal operations like any other business expense.

Tribal environmental sustainability specialist Jeff Tompkins sees a different future for the tribe though, and since joining CPN in March, he has pushed a renewed effort at profiting from the tribe’s waste management practices.

Tompkins is originally from Washington, Oklahoma. He attended East Central University in Ada for two years before taking a break from school to work in Oklahoma’s booming oil fields. After two years there, where he worked to earn money to pay for his tuition, he returned to school, this time at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

The passing of his father brought him home. While living in Asher, Oklahoma to stay near his family, he returned to college at East Central. He completed his bachelor’s degree in environmental science in December 2015.

“I thought it was a good field because it was broad and you could do a lot of things — water, air, solid waste, safety, you name it — there’s probably work there,” he said.

In a state where the energy industry can be seen almost anywhere, Tompkins’ search for work right out of college, like many in his generation, didn’t go quite as he planned. He eventually found work in Coalgate, Oklahoma with Targa Pipeline, where he worked as a plant operator. He admitted that the position wasn’t what he initially thought he would put his degree to use in doing, but was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I oversaw plant operations, including contractors that came in to work and ensured our employees were adhering to company safety and operation standards,” he said. “Pressures, temperatures, volumes, flows, basic things like that I oversaw and adjusted.”

Despite much of his professional work centering on the energy industry, whether as a roustabout, oil field truck driver or as a pipeline plant manager, Tompkins’ passion is environmental science. Knowing of this focus, a family connection directed his attention to the position he currently serves with Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

His wife’s first cousin had worked for the tribe, and knew of its environmental quality department. He told Tompkins of the opening for an environmental sustainability specialist. The position has existed at the tribe for several years, but under Tompkins its mission has taken on a new urgency.

On board since March 2017, Tompkins spearheads the resurrection of the Green Team, an employee-led initiative to promote sustainability practices throughout the tribe’s more than 50 commercial enterprises and government programs. He meets monthly with representatives from several of these departments to inform them of recycling and sustainability initiatives.

While he admitted his passion at CPN lies in his recycling and sustainability duties, Tompkins also manages other duties. He monitors the tribe’s underground storage tanks at sites like FireLake Grand Travel Plaza and FireLake Corner Store in Shawnee, Oklahoma, ensuring there are no leaks of fuel or other chemicals. Tompkins ensures the tribe’s underground storage tanks are in compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency codes on a monthly and annual basis.

Part of the challenge he faces on the recycling front is in demonstrating how these initiatives actually benefit the tribe in dollars and cents.

“There’s a lot of money in trash,” he said. “A part of what we’re doing is showing our programs that the money they’ll save in recycling materials they go through every day can actually impact the tribe’s bottom line.”

Under the direction of tribal Office of Environmental Health director Art Mueller and senior policy analyst Shawn Howard, Tompkins has connected with fellow tribal environmental sustainability specialists across the country to learn their best practices.

“The tribe has almost unlimited amounts of trash and it has to pay someone else money to come haul it off,” Tompkins explained. “With no recycling program in place, an operation like the tribe can be missing out on cost savings. Trash should be looked at like a commodity.”

Tompkins knows changing how the tribe conducts business won’t be easy, but he also knows that people will be eager to participate once they see how much money they’re dumping onto the trash pile. In an effective demonstration of a metaphor becoming literal, he gets his hands dirty by sorting trash for waste audits.

“We go through, separate the trash out of the garbage and divide it, weigh it and input it into a database so we can estimate how much each business or department is going through,” he said. “We can show how much money the tribe could save in paying someone to haul their waste off by recycling it.”

He cited the situation across the parking lot from his office, noting the CPN Administration building has three dumpsters that are emptied twice a week by an outside company at a cost of $300 per dumpster. A 2015 Grand Casino Hotel & Resort waste audit by CPN’s environmental quality office estimated that 3,000 pounds of food waste a month was going into the dumpsters on a weekly basis, which could be composted and used, rather than paid to an external sanitation firm to haul away.

Tribes like Choctaw Nation use such waste in tribe-wide composting operations, saving funds on landscaping and other uses. In Minnesota, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has a revenue-making venture on its 45-acre organics recycling facility, making Dakota Roots products to sell at retailers and wholesalers.

The ultimate goal, Tompkins explained, is to be able to show how much trash the tribe is going through in an integrated solid waste management plan and use that information to solicit bids from sanitation firms to haul it away at the lowest cost to CPN. Once the tribe has that waste management plan, it will also be eligible for further federal grants to possibly expand its sustainability initiatives.