Folks in Middletown, N.Y., may simply shrug their shoulders when they hear about budget-driven cutbacks in federal and state environmental en-forcement efforts.
No big deal here. Of course, not every community has local high school students - with TV cameras in hand - who put the spotlight on pollution hot spots.
Over the past five years, hundreds of students at Middletown High School have learned to use video cameras and public documents to probe illegal dumping and other abuses throughout Orange County, N.Y.
Led by Fred Isseks, an active environmentalist who teaches "Elec-tronic English," students have been outpacing the local news media and forcing Walkill town officials to pay more attention to a local landfill. The town board spent $3 million in state funds on a site cleanup that apparently did not accomplish much.
In 1991, students in Isseks' television communications class interviewed a retired landfill worker. While the video camera rolled, the former town employee talked about truckloads of car-battery cases, medical waste and toxic materials entering the town dump. "Anything you can name, from radioactive waste to hospital waste [is] in that landfill," he told a student reporter. "And I know it's in there because I buried lots of it."
The video corroborated the worker's story with footage of a state biologist as he discovered used syringes and took samples from purple and orange puddles amidst the mounds of debris at the Walkill town dump.
The video appeared on a public access television channel that reaches 50,000 people around Middle-town. After an investigative news unit at WWOR-TV, Channel 9, in Secaucus, N.J., saw the tapes in 1992, the station aired a report and used the students' film.
"They were so well informed, so professional, we basically reported on what the kids had done," said Stephan Christopulos, a producer at the station.
By using a town map from 1971, the students pointed out a stream running right through the dump site and, then, showed official maps on which no stream appears. In their opinion, this proved that officials knew the site in Walkill was never suitable for a landfill, according to The New York Times.
Calling his students "the largest news team in the Hudson Valley," Mr. Isseks observes that these young people are searching for a cause. "They'd like to see themselves on an equal footing with adults, especially politicians," he said. "Once they have a camera in their hands, that's possible."
The students' interviews with the re-tired landfill worker, for example, helped expose illegal dumping at the site that may lead to criminal charges, according to Russell Budd, a private investigator who, several years ago, probed illegal dumping in Orange County for a member of the State Assembly. Referring to the 1991 video, Budd said, "It was really the kids in all honesty that scooped us. They brought the video to us, which hooked us immediately."
Last October, Isseks and his students collected a batch of documents and sent them to the Orange County district attorney. The papers revealed that, based on its shoddy reputation, the town's contractor for closing the landfill had been disqualified by three New York City a-gencies from bidding on projects.
Indeed, a member of the Walkill Town Board had told the students a month earlier to take their evidence "some place where something's going to be done," according to re-marks captured by the students on videotape at a board meeting.
The high school students are "a burr under the saddle of local governments," said the district attorney. "But asking politicians questions and demanding answers is a very healthy thing to do," he continued. "If I were on a municipal board and presented with what these kids have developed, it would make me pause."
Isseks, a 1966 graduate of Middletown High School, has taught English for many years. After school administrators purchased equipment in 1991 to establish a small cable station at the school, Mr. Isseks got a master's degree in media and communications. He then developed a series of classes using the new video gear.
After hearing rumors that toxic wastes had been dumped at the Walkill landfill in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he decided to turn his students loose on the topic.
The students' tapes tend to have sharp and unmistakable points of view. As a result, some community leaders are concerned that the program is teaching more about crusading than about inquiring.
Meanwhile, the town supervisor defends the landfill cleanup, saying the project was under budget and had met all requirements set by state environmental officials. Moreover, he says, the town is actively searching for the companies that dumped at the site so they can be forced to share the capping costs.