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housing starts soared last month to cap the strongest year for new-home building in more than a decade, the Commerce Department reported. Total starts jumped 3.5 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.72 million, after a revised 1.8 percent decline in November. For 1998, starts totaled 1.616 million - the highest since 1.621 million in 1987.

A California environmental group filed suit against more than a dozen major oil companies, charging them with allowing dangerous chemicals to contaminate the state's water supply. The Communities for a Better Environment suit, called the largest of its type in state history, charges the companies with leaking chemicals into the water supply from underground storage tanks, refineries, and service stations. In addition to penalties, the suit seeks cleanup of the sites.

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A bloated work force in the money-losing textile industry will have been cut by 1.1 million employees a year from now, an official Chinese newspaper said. Some 660,000 of those were let go in 1998, the most in any of the country's industrial sectors in a 12-month period, China Daily said. It put 1998 textile losses at $222 million - the sixth consecutive year in the red because of outmoded facilities, weak domestic demand, or the Asia-wide economic crisis.

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