By Michael Winerip
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The New York Times, January 31, 1993
Capen Residence Hall at SUNY New Paltz, pictured in the spring of 2007. Photo by Eric Francis.
ERIC COPPOLINO, stringer for the weekly Huguenot Herald, was busy doing freelance investigative reporting on PCBs. "I wouldn't walk in that mud," he advised, rushing around state university here. Everywhere, students were happily and calmly traipsing by. "Could be PCBs. You never know."
At Scudder dormitory, where decontamination crews have been working a year, he took pictures of spools of wire. Workers looked mystified. "Seems boring," he said. "But when you study the pictures over time, you see changes." Outside Parker Theater, he stepped on a manhole cover and got excited. "Test well No. 1! That's where it is. I've never had a story before where you could walk around and find clues."
Thirteen months ago, a car crash a mile from the university smashed a utility pole, causing a power surge on campus that exploded basement transformers, which spewed PCBs that contaminated six buildings. Since then, Mr. Coppolino has been the only reporter faithfully chronicling this extraordinary story. Officials estimated that cleaning up the carcinogenic PCBs would cost 500,000 US Dollars. They've spent 20 million US Dollars so far. One dorm remains closed; the science building will not reopen until fall 1994 at the earliest, and there are still guys walking around in moonsuits. (A state building in Binghamton, shut after a 1981 PCB explosion, has not reopened yet. That cleanup cost is 45 million US Dollars to date.)
Mr. Coppolino's swashbuckling 1960's-style journalism has turned off many here. He's been arrested for trespassing (the case was dismissed), and some officials refuse to read his articles, they dislike him so. The university spokesman, Kenneth Burda, says the articles are "definitely alarmist"; The stories do have a point of view, featuring headlines like "Deep Trouble" and "Afterglow".
Few share his concern that reopened buildings are still dangerous. People tell him they trust the state or say "you have to die of something." This does not deter him. In the tradition of investigative reporters, Mr. Coppolino draws strength from being disliked, blitzing officials with Freedom of Information Act requests. ("I sent in a very menacing F.O.I.A. today.")
He has a gift for rooting out the disturbing fact in a pile of otherwise orderly documents. Among his disclosures: For the first time here, PCB groundwater contamination was recently detected in a test well (between 0.4 and 0.7 micrograms per litre, versus a "safe" level of 0.1); contamination goes so deep under Scudder that removing more tainted dirt will compromise the dormitory foundation; eight feet below Parker Theater, contamination was 4,000 times acceptable levels.
Officials acknowledge that these problems have no solutions yet, but say they are minor compared with what's been accomplished.
Looking back at his first year on PCBs, Mr. Coppolino says, "I feel like I'm just getting a foothold." This could be bad news for everybody. In 1989, as a graduate student here, he founded Student Leader News Service, covering the state and city university systems. It was really just Mr. Coppolino, a computer that his Aunt Josie bought him and three buddies who worked the phones in exchange for a place to sleep. They did good journalism. Mr. Coppolino was one of the few people not on the state payroll who understood the budget.
In fall 1991 during a university-wide fiscal crisis, they broke the story of the lavish spending habits of the city university's student senate leader, Jean LaMarre. The young reporters verified 13,011 US Dollars student money spent on limousine service (586 US Dollars for cellular calls); 24,000 US Dollars in salary for Mr. LaMarre's assistant (his twin sister); 4,500 US Dollars for three friends to travel to Africa. The reporters conned an Albany Hilton clerk into faxing them a copy of a 49,763 US Dollar bill for a three-day lobbying conference.
The story ran big in the New York City dailies, crediting the news service. Mr. LaMarre paid back 1,355 US Dollars; student leader stipends were stopped.
"What a high," Mr. Coppolino said. But he learned some hard lessons. First, investigative reporting is generally not profitable. He picked up just one new subscriber and last year, in debt, shut down the news service.
Also, Mr. LaMarre was re-elected. Then Spike Lee spotted him giving a speech and cast him in "Malcolm X", as Benjamin 2X. Mr. LaMarre now has two agents and is up for a part in "Sister Act II". Asked if he felt remorse about the scandal, Mr. LaMarre said, "We made some decisions that were not utterly responsible, all a part of the learning process." He hopes, after an acting career, to enter politics and does not believe his past will hurt him. He is probably right.
As for Mr. Coppolino, he's having trouble paying the bills on 75 US Dollars per story and this week begins selling magazines over the phone to support his investigative reporting.