Never in his wildest dreams did Mike Pompili envision himself leading a national environmental revolt, let alone leading one from his desk in the health department of Columbus, Ohio. But that is pretty much what he has done.
During more than a decade as his city’s assistant health commissioner, Pompili has chafed at the rigidity of rules imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In his view, inflexible EPA standards force city and county regulators to toe a federal line, leaving no room to make their own calls about which forms of pollution pose the most imminent threat to the health and safety of local residents. If Columbus just had more discretion, Pompili told local citizens a few years ago, “I could give you better environmental protection at lower cost.” But the discretion didn’t exist.
Over the years, Pompili has come up with quite a few clever arguments and demonstrations to make his point. In one memorable case, he called national attention to an EPA rule requiring Columbus to test for an agricultural chemical used only on pineapples grown in Hawaii.
But Pompili didn’t settle for simply complaining, or attracting media coverage. In cooperation with then-Mayor Gregory Lashutka, Pompili and other city officials compiled a landmark report on how federal unfunded mandates required Columbus to spend money on meeting EPA-imposed standards instead of channeling limited resources to more pressing local problems. With the distribution of that report, Pompili emerged as a spokesman for local governments all over the country that felt besieged by a torrent of one-size-fits-all federal regulations on clean air, solid waste and drinking water.
Then he took a considerably bolder step, enlisting help from the city’s academics, local environmentalists and industrial leaders to compile a “Priorities ’95” document laying out the environmental issues that the community felt needed to be addressed. In the years since then, Priorities ’95 has grown into a full-fledged risk-assessment program, one that evaluates the seriousness of 30 significant pollution problems and sets priorities for addressing them locally.
Not everyone in the environmental field approves of Pompili’s approach. His questioning of EPA rules has drawn fire from environmental activists in his home-town and produced grumbling among some of his fellow-public health officials in other cities. “I’ve always been a person who tries to do the right thing, and sometimes that gets you into things that get you into trouble,” Pompili says.
Nonetheless, Congress responded by revising the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to give EPA more leeway in setting new standards, and by enacting a law limiting new mandates unless the federal government was prepared to cover the costs. Both of those changes can be traced in a significant way to Pompili’s work.
Meanwhile, the health department has reached out to educate Columbus citizens about pollution threats, working through neighborhood groups and churches as well as a scientific advisory board drawn partly from Ohio State University and the Battelle Institute, both located in the city. Most recently, the department launched what it calls “Project Clear,” to identify the steps that would result in the greatest gains in reducing the city’s smog.
“Mike really is a guy who created his own niche and did something with it,” notes Lashutka, now retired as mayor. “It takes the intellect, the caring, the passion that Mike Pompili has to make it work.”
Pompili tells his newest employees that they won’t earn salaries comparable with those in private industry, but they may very well create a more livable city for their families by the time they retire. “That’s the reward,” he says, speaking as much for himself as for the people around him.
— Tom Arrandale
Photos by Andy Snow