Rachel's Democracy & Health News #851
Thursday, April 20, 2006

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #851 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
April 20, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In Pennsylvania, local governments have begun to confront corporate power directly, enacting ordinances intended to define corporations instead of merely "regulating" their behavior. The ideas embodied within these ordinances have been hammered out by Pennsylvania citizens in open debate, but the legal language has been crafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Here we present a new model ordinance from CELDF, not yet enacted anywhere, which defines "chemical trespass" (toxicants entering our bodies without our consent), prohibits it, and punishes corporations (and their directors) if they do it. To understand the goals of this innovative approach to corporate power, you really should attend Democracy School, which we recommend highly. -- Editors]

By Thomas Linzey


This "Corporate Chemical Trespass" ordinance was developed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania non-profit law firm. CELDF is making this model ordinance available to anyone interested in mobilizing their communities to confront chemical trespass by chemical corporations and the directors of those corporations.

CELDF ordinances are designed to be discussed, perfected, and used as linchpins of organizing campaigns conducted in coordination with the Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools. These ordinances and Democracy Schools reject a regulatory mode of organizing, and instead seek to assert local control directly over corporations and the few who run them.

Anyone interested in exploring this ordinance and Democracy Schools for use in their municipality, may contact CELDF at (717) 709-0457, info@celdf.org, www.celdf.org, or Richard Grossman at rgrossman@riseup.net.

Liberty Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania

Ordinance No. 2006-

An Ordinance of Liberty Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Prohibiting Chemical Bodily Trespass within the Township; Establishing Strict Liability and Burden of Proof Standards for Corporate Chemical Trespass; and Subordinating Chemical Corporations to the People of Liberty Township

Section 1. Name. The name of this Ordinance shall be the "Liberty Township Chemical Trespass Ordinance."

Section 2. Authority. This Ordinance is adopted and enacted pursuant to the authority granted to the Township by all relevant state and federal laws including, but not limited, to the following:

§ The Declaration of Independence, which declares that governments are instituted to secure people's rights, and that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed;

§ The Pennsylvania Constitution, Article 1, §2, which declares that "all power is inherent in the people and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness";

§ The Pennsylvania Constitution, Article 1, §27, which declares that "the people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment";

§ Common law, which recognizes well-settled rules governing the tort of trespass, and which requires injunctive, compensatory, and punitive relief to be assessed for unauthorized intrusions;

§ The provisions of the Second Class Township Code Article XV, as codified in 53 P.S. § 66501 et seq. that provide for the protection and preservation of the natural resources and human resources, and for the promotion, protection, and facilitation of public health, safety, and welfare;

§ The provisions of the Second Class Township Code, Article XVI, as codified in 53 P.S. § 66601 et seq. that authorizes the Township to enact ordinances dealing with the protection of the township residents' health, nuisances, and promotion of public safety.

Section 3. Purpose. The Board of Supervisors of Liberty Township recognizes that over eighty thousand (80,000) corporate-produced chemicals are currently used in the United States, and that scientists estimate that over seven hundred (700) of those corporate-produced chemicals are now found within the body of every human. Only a small percentage of those chemicals have ever been screened for even one potential health effect, such as cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, or injury to the immune system. Among the approximately fifteen thousand (15,000) chemicals tested, few have been studied enough to conclude that there are no potential risks from exposure. Even when testing is done, each chemical is tested individually rather than in synergistic combinations that reflect actual human exposure in the real world. The Board recognizes that one thousand eight hundred (1,800) new chemicals enter the stream of commerce annually -- thus entering into the bodies of people, and into the air, water, soil, and food -- with few of those chemicals tested for adverse impacts on human health or ecosystems. The Board recognizes that sufficient data and experience exists for a reasonable person to conclude that a significant percentage of both currently used and newly manufactured chemicals are harmful to humans, animals, and ecosystems.

Section 4. Purpose. The purpose of this Ordinance is to recognize that it is an inviolate, fundamental, and inalienable right of each person residing within the Township of Liberty to be free from involuntary invasions of their bodies by corporate chemicals. The Board of Supervisors of Liberty Township declares that persons owning and managing corporations that manufacture chemicals and chemical compounds trespassing on the bodies of residents of the Township must be held liable for those trespasses. The Board of Supervisors also declares that the failure and refusal of the United States' government and the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to ensure that corporate chemicals do not trespass on the residents of Liberty Township makes them jointly and severally liable for those trespasses.

Section 5. Definitions. As used throughout this Ordinance, the following words and phrases shall have the following meanings:

"Corporation" -- any corporation organized under the laws of any state of the United States or any country.

"Deposition" -- the placement of a toxic chemical or potentially toxic chemical within the body of a person. The act of deposition shall be assumed if a toxic chemical or potentially toxic chemical is detected within the body of a person.

"Municipality" -- the Township of Liberty.

"Person" -- a natural person.

"Syndicate" -- includes any limited partnership, limited liability partnership, business trust, or limited liability company organized under the laws of any state of the United States or any country.

"Toxic chemicals and potentially toxic chemicals" -- includes, but is not limited to, polychlorinated biphenyls, organophosphate pesticides, organochlorine pesticides, carbamate insecticides, PBDE, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, phytoestrogens, and pyrethroid pesticides. The phrase shall include other chemicals or chemical compounds that have been found to cause adverse effects to animals, humans, or ecosystems, including those chemicals or chemical compounds deemed to be mutagenic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic, or reproductive and developmental toxicants.

"Township resident" -- a natural person who maintains a primary residence within the Township of Liberty.

"Trespass" -- as used within this Ordinance, the involuntary deposition of toxic or potentially toxic chemicals within a human body.

Section 6. Statement of Law -- Chemical Trespass. All residents of the Township of Liberty possess a fundamental and inalienable right to the integrity of their bodies, and thus, have a right to be free from unwanted chemical invasions of their bodies.

Section 7. Statement of Law -- Prohibition. The deposition of toxic chemicals or potentially toxic chemicals within the body of any resident of Liberty Township is declared a form of trespass, and is hereby prohibited. No corporation or syndicate shall engage in the production, distribution, use, and/or sale of toxic chemicals and potentially toxic chemicals within the Township of Liberty.

Section 8. Statement of Law -- Culpable Parties. Persons owning or managing corporations which manufacture or generate toxic or potentially toxic chemicals detected within the body of any resident of Liberty Township shall be deemed culpable parties, along with the corporation itself, for the recovery of trespass damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and the instatement of permanent injunctive relief. If more than one corporation manufactured or generated the detected chemical or chemical compound, persons owning and managing those corporations, along with the corporations themselves, shall be held jointly and severally liable for those damages, in addition to being subject to injunctive relief.

Section 9. Statement of Law -- Requirement to Produce. Corporations manufacturing or generating toxic or potentially toxic chemicals detected within the body of a Township resident shall provide information about the manufacture or generation of those chemicals to the municipality sufficient for a determination by the municipality of the culpability of that particular corporation for the manufacturing or generation of a particular toxic or potentially toxic chemical.

Section 10. Statement of Law -- Duty of Municipality. It shall be the duty of the municipality to protect the right of residents of the Township to be free from chemical trespass under the provisions of this Ordinance, and to obtain damages for any violation of that right. If the presence of toxic and/or potentially toxic chemicals is detected within the body of any Township resident, the municipality shall initiate litigation to recover trespass, compensatory, and punitive damages -- and permanent injunctive relief -- from all culpable parties. If a significant number of Township residents have been similarly trespassed against, the municipality shall select representative plaintiffs and file a class action on behalf of all Township residents to recover trespass, compensatory, and punitive damages -- and permanent injunctive relief -- from all culpable parties.

Section 11. Statement of Law -- Strict Liability. Culpable parties shall be deemed strictly liable if one of their toxic or potentially toxic chemical or chemical compounds is discovered within the body of a Township resident. The municipality's showing of the existence of that chemical or chemical compound within the body of a resident living in the Township, and the municipality's showing that the Defendant(s) are responsible for the manufacture or generation of that chemical, shall constitute a prime facie showing of causation under a strict liability standard. Current and future damages resulting from the culpable parties' trespass shall be assumed, and the burden of proof shall shift to the culpable parties for a showing that the chemical or chemical compound could not cause harm or contribute to causing harm, either alone or in combination with other factors, or that the culpable parties are not responsible for the trespass of that particular chemical into the body of residents of the Township.

Section 12. Statement of Law -- Corporate Constitutional Protections. No corporation or syndicate engaged in, or planning to engage in, the manufacture, distribution, and/or sale of toxic chemicals or potentially toxic chemicals within the Township of Liberty shall be protected, or empowered by, the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, or by rights claimed within the text of the United States or Pennsylvania Constitutions, within the Township of Liberty. No corporation or syndicate engaged in, or planning to engage in, the manufacture, distribution, and/or sale of toxic chemicals or potentially toxic chemicals within the Township shall be deemed a "person" for purposes of the Pennsylvania or United States Constitutions, nor shall such corporations or syndicates have the legal standing to assert State or federal preemptive law against the municipality or the people of Liberty Township.

Section 13. Statement of Law -- Corporate Constitutional Protections. A corporation or syndicate deemed a culpable party under this Ordinance shall not be protected, or empowered by, the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, or by rights claimed within the text of the United States or Pennsylvania Constitution. Such corporation or syndicate shall not have legal standing to assert State or federal preemptive law against the municipality or the people of Liberty Township.

Section 14. Statement of Law -- Municipal Testing. Liberty Township shall select a laboratory with expertise in the testing for toxic chemicals and potentially toxic chemicals and chemical compounds, including, but not limited to, those chemical compounds listed in §5 of this Ordinance. The Township shall provide financial resources for the first ten residents who request to be tested for the presence of toxic chemicals and potentially toxic chemicals and chemical compounds within their bodies, and make all reasonable efforts to provide financial resources for the testing of additional residents.

Section 15. Enforcement. The Township Board of Supervisors shall notify the Code Enforcement Officer of any possible violations, and any resident of the Township may also notify the Township of any possible violations. In addition to civil litigation brought against culpable parties by the municipality, all violations of this Ordinance shall be considered criminal summary offenses. The Board of Supervisors authorizes a fine of up to $1,000.00 per violation. Each day of non-compliance shall be considered a separate violation of this Ordinance. The Township may also file an action in equity in the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, or any other Court of competent jurisdiction to abate any violation of this Ordinance. If the Township fails to bring an action to enforce this Ordinance, or fails to diligently prosecute an action to enforce this Ordinance, any resident of the Township shall have legal standing to enforce the provisions of this Ordinance.

Section 16. Severability. The provisions of this Ordinance are severable, and if any section, clause, sentence, part, or provision thereof shall be held illegal, invalid or unconstitutional by any court of relevant jurisdiction, such decision of the court shall not affect, impair, or invalidate any of the remaining sections, clauses, sentences, parts or provisions of this Ordinance. It is hereby declared to be the intent of the Supervisors that this Ordinance would have been adopted if a provision deemed by the Court to be illegal, invalid, or constitutional would not have been included herein.

Section 17. Effect. This Ordinance shall be effective immediately upon its enactment.


From: The Chronicle of Philanthropy .......................[This story printer-friendly]
April 20, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Some say the environmental movement is dead. Author Mark Dowie argues that the movement is clearly alive but "courting irrelevance." The problem is that about 25 large organizations get 70% of all the available funding, which they tend to spend on lobbying campaigns that no longer work very well. Meanwhile, thousands of small groups working all across the country at the local level must divvy up the remaining 30%. This arrangement starves grass-roots activism, which is innovative, passionate, effective, and connected to communities of people who vote. Dowie suggests several remedies, among them to strengthen the entire environmental effort by linking advocates for environmental justice, economic justice, public health, democratic decision making, and civil rights. Amen.]

By Mark Dowie

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the modern American environmental movement has been in a constant state of flux. The movement itself began about a century ago with a small number of relatively conservative organizations largely committed to wilderness preservation, and has in the past 35 years grown into a vast national complex comprising a few dozen large national organizations and thousands of small grass-roots groups that focus on local and regional matters as well as social concerns like environmental justice.

American environmentalism is interested in such a wide range of issues that it seems at times to be many movements. Groups that are preserving the forests, conserving wildlife, protecting rivers, defending the oceans, and improving air and water quality all operate under the broad and very vague rubric of environmentalism, as do organizations making sure that minority neighborhoods don't suffer unduly from environmental harms and that workers are not exposed to toxic substances.

The large national groups take on most of those issues in one way or another, so they often think of themselves, and their members, as part of the grass roots. However, most members of national organizations are passive check writers and occasional letter writers, essential perhaps to the operation of the organization, and of some value to the cause of environmental protection, but hardly vital to the grass-roots commitment and energy essential to any successful social movement. Changing the balance, so the grass-roots groups can be stronger, is an essential challenge for the world of philanthropy.

To be sure, the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society work aggressively to foster activism among their members, and a few members of the other groups are active in local causes, often at the behest of national headquarters. But the serious and most effective activists are more likely to be found in the 50,000 or more small to medium- sized regional and local groups scattered about the country, many of them ad hoc and temporary in nature, frequently and unpredictably appearing and disappearing from watersheds and neighborhoods they seek to protect.

The press rarely pays attention to these activists, so the American public is generally unaware of them, except perhaps when talk-show hosts describe them as single-issue cranks, troublemakers, and antagonists of economic development. Meanwhile the news media turn to mainstream organizations, which have wrapped themselves in a mantle of elite respectability and come to regard themselves as "the movement." Sadly, those big green groups show little regard or respect for anything remotely grass roots beyond their own largely inert membership.

The failure of these mainstream organizations to produce meaningful change has led some smart but not very wise young people to declare the death of American environmentalism. These critics are right about one thing: The movement is certainly in trouble. It is courting irrelevance as unwieldy, unimaginative, overfed organizations, with plush headquarters in Washington and New York, rely on tired old tactics, such as politely lobbying the federal government, that long ago ceased being effective.

But even if the big organizations are presenting obvious symptoms of organ failure, it seems premature to write an obituary for a nationwide matrix that still has 11 million dues-paying members, about 400 foundations and even some corporations supporting it, as well as thousands of organizations that employ some of society's most committed and brilliant scientists, lawyers, organizers, and activists.

What the critics have missed isn't whether environmentalism is alive or dead, or should be dead. The real question is what can be done to bridge the divide between the mainstream and the grass roots of the movement, and the answer to that has a lot to do with how environmentalism is financed.

About 70 percent of the revenue flowing into the entire environmental agenda ends up in the treasuries of about 25 large national organizations, according to the book Environment Inc.: From Grassroots to Beltway, by Christopher J. Bosso, a political scientist at Northwestern University. That leaves literally thousands of small to medium-sized groups, some with large and significant missions, to compete for the other 30 percent.

While much of the money that flows to environmental activism comes from individuals, a significant share comes from foundations that attach strings to their grants. As a result, grant makers are setting the agenda for much of the environmental movement.

Foundations tend to support the big groups, in part because they are so unwilling to take risks. Many of them would rather write one large check to a high-profile national organization than 10 small checks to groups they have barely heard of and would have to monitor more closely.

Some foundation executives also tend to buy into the sophisticated publicity that flows endlessly from mainstream organizations, many of which have merely swept into campaigns or issues at the last minute, when success seemed imminent, and claimed credit for accomplishments that grass-roots groups had been working on for years.

The lack of attention to the grass roots has been further exacerbated by the growing number of foundations that want to shape their own programs, rather than giving money to projects developed by environmental groups. Most of the foundation program officers who create these efforts have no experience working with grass-roots groups.

Changing such patterns is not easy, but if foundations would pool their money into a new effort to strengthen the grass roots, they could make a big difference.

Foundations that join forces for such a project would have to be willing to take risks, and even fail at times. Here are some of the ingredients that should go into an effective effort to stimulate the grass-roots groups:

* Grant-making decisions would be made fast, and money doled out quickly. Grass-roots groups rarely have serious financial cushions, nor do they have the luxury to take a long time to plan their campaigns and wait for the money to come in.

* While moving quickly is important to helping groups get their start and stay afloat, the best way to help grass-roots groups flourish over the long term is for grant makers to commit funds for as long as 20 years, instead of the three years that so many foundations now offer before they cut off their aid.

* Getting good and fresh ideas is also a critical need, and a key role for a foundation collaborative. It could support circuit riders whose task it would be to search the countryside for effective change agents and organizations needing support. The collaborative should also turn to its first or second round of grantees for suggestions about what groups to support in the third or fourth rounds, thereby getting feedback from groups that know what is needed most and democratizing the process of grant making.

* To give small groups the help they need with marketing, technology, fund raising, and back-office administration, foundations should support the development of groups that provide those services effectively and at low cost. Then struggling groups would not be forced to waste time on tasks unrelated to their mission of protecting the environment.

Such a collaborative needs to worry not just about supporting organizations, but about supporting people. It should pay for health and liability insurance for people who work for small, risk-taking groups. Environmentalists should not have to feel compelled to work at a big group just because that is the only way to get decent benefits.

The collaborative should also demonstrate its commitment to environmentalism by making sure its money is invested in ways that are aligned with its mission. It would either avoid investments in companies with poor environmental records or use its power as a shareholder to change the policies of companies that damage the environment. Focusing solely on making grants is not enough.

Other goals of a collaborative to spur grass-roots groups would be:

* To provide grass-roots activists protection against retaliation from companies they protest and from the backlash of activists from the counter-environmentalist movements.

* To foster regional and international networks of small groups that will become more powerful by multiplying their numbers and combining their efforts.

* To encourage solid multicultural work that brings racial and ethnic minorities into a movement that is still largely made up of white and middle-class people.

* To strengthen the entire environmental effort by linking advocates for environmental justice, economic justice, public health, democratic decision making, and civil rights.

While large national organizations provide the overall movement an invaluable service in the form of research, litigation, and communication, they are not, and should not be regarded as, the heart of the movement.

Once liberated from that self-image and the responsibility that goes with it, national groups will be free to expand and improve their scientific and legal contributions to the cause of environmental protection and public health, all the while providing supportive service and encouragement to the thousands of smaller neighborhood groups applying social and political pressure where it is needed most --- at the grass roots of the nation.


**Mark Dowie is conducting research on the historical relationship between international conservation and indigenous peoples for MIT Press. He is also the author of American Foundations and Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century.

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle of Philanthropy


From: Daily Environment Report ...........................[This story printer-friendly]
September 20, 2004


[Rachel's introduction: People involved with the cleanup or redevelopment of sites contaminated with volatile organic compounds are facing a new environmental challenge, vapor intrusion, which occurs when volatile compounds move up through cracks, gaps, or pores in soil and foundations into homes, other buildings, and even the outdoor air.]

By Lenny Siegel**

The characterization and cleanup of vapor intrusion at sites contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is the new frontier of environmental response. Most vapor intrusion responses have focused on the direct vertical transport of contamination into overlying homes, but increasingly it is being recognized as a neighborhood phenomenon, both indoor and outdoor. The most common VOC, trichloroethylene (TCE), has been identified in at least 852 of the nearly 1,500 sites on the superfund National Priorities List and is found at thousands of other sites across the country. No one yet knows how many of the sites that have TCE intrusion pose a risk to public health.

The vapor intrusion problem also exists at sites where soil has been excavated and groundwater treatment remedies are in place. At these sites, regulatory agencies and responsible parties are re-opening their programs to consider this previously ignored exposure pathway. Furthermore, the presence of VOCs in groundwater or soil also presents a challenge for development or redevelopment. There are no clear rules of thumb for determining when or how sensitive uses, such as day-care centers, homes, and schools, should be located above sites contaminated by carbon tetrachloride, perchloroethylene, TCE, and related compounds.

One of the communities in which vapor intrusion is rising to the surface is Mountain View, Calif., my community--the community where I started learning about hazardous substances nearly 30 years ago. The response to detected vapor intrusion at four distinct but neighboring Mountain View sites is breaking new ground. All stakeholders are learning a great deal about the nature and extent of vapor intrusion, as well as what can be done about it.

I. Background

In the early 1980s, following the discovery of TCE pollution from underground storage and waste tanks at a Fairchild Semiconductor facility in south San Jose, Calif., environmental regulators asked other Bay Area electronics plants to look for contamination, too. Throughout Silicon Valley they found it. One of the largest chemical plumes was found in the Mountain View industrial area that was the birthplace of the commercial semiconductor industry, where Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, and Raytheon Semiconductor got their start, all of whom are among the responsible parties at the site.

Today the area is known by the three streets that, along with the Bayshore Freeway (Highway 101), bind most of the offending facilities--"The Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Study Area." Covering 300 acres, the MEW study area now hosts offices for firms such as Netscape, Nokia, Verisign, and Veritas.

Led by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the local community successfully campaigned to get the Environmental Protection Agency to add the MEW area to the National Priorities List in 1986. In 1987, EPA also added the 2,200-acre Moffett Naval Air Station to the National Priorities List not only because it contributed to the MEW plume but because it also had created a couple dozen other contaminated sites. The Navy turned over most of the naval air station to NASA in 1994, but it retained responsibility for addressing most of the contamination released during its tenure.

In the early 1990s, EPA's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program began working with GTE Sylvania, which found three smaller TCE plumes on its 75-acre property. GTE lies just south of the MEW area, and the company worked hard to keep its contamination and legal situation separate from the larger, multi-source superfund problem nearby.

In the late 1990s, the Navy found a previously undocumented plume under the 72-acre Orion Park military housing area, now owned by the U.S. Army. The source of that plume still is subject to debate among the local responsible parties.

The regulatory agencies and responsible parties gradually embarked on a comprehensive cleanup of the MEW area that included soil removal, underground "slurry wall" barriers, and the installation of "pump-and- treat" systems. The goal was to protect the deep aquifers that supply a fraction of the Mountain View water supply. Still, because of the difficulty inherent in removing TCE from groundwater, EPA's cleanup standards will not be met for decades.

To further ensure the public would not be exposed to TCE and other contaminants, the city of Mountain View relocated a drinking water supply well and undertook routine water testing. Long-term exposure to low levels of TCE is believed to cause cancer, liver disease, and neurological problems, plus a host of other ailments.

A. Community Gets Involved

Beginning in 1990, the Navy invited community activists to meetings to learn about and oversee its superfund cleanup. The Moffett Field Technical Review Committee, now the Restoration Advisory Board, has become the model for about 300 such advisory groups at military bases across the United States, as well as dozens of similar bodies at civilian contamination sites. At meetings that occur every other month, community volunteers, local officials, state and federal regulators, representatives of the Navy, and other responsible parties meet to discuss contamination and cleanup plans. Several times since the Restoration Advisory Board's inception, local activists have used this cordial body to influence the Navy's cleanup activities at Moffett.1

B. Reusing the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Site

As Silicon Valley moved from chip manufacturing to software development, the MEW area was rebuilt. New buildings in the area relied on "impermeable" slab foundations and positive air pressure to protect occupants from the poisons below. The redevelopment was praised, and in October 2000, EPA featured Netscape's MEW campus on the cover of its brochure, "Reusing Superfund Sites."

Meanwhile, at the GTE site, the city of Mountain View approved an award-winning planned community of more than 500 townhouses and single-family residences centered around a new Valley Transportation Authority light rail station. The homes quickly sold in 1997 during the "dot-com" boom. In fact, people camped out to form a line at the sales office when properties first went on the market. Townhomes initially fetched about $350,000 in 1997, and by early 2003, when the vapor intrusion scare struck, units were selling for $200,000 to $300,000 more.

In Mountain View, compared to many other polluted communities, the system seemed to be working. Still, residents and MEW-area employees wondered about the effects of the toxic releases being emitted by the air strippers that were part of the groundwater extraction systems in the area. Small concentrations of volatile compounds escaped from these devices via contaminated groundwater pumped from below and wafted into the local atmosphere. Three such air strippers, looking like Disney's Rocket-to-the-Moon ride, stood out like sore thumbs.

At a May 2001 meeting, EPA officials told community members not to worry. Though the air strippers released untreated TCE directly into the atmosphere, the concentrations were too low to cause any health concern, according to those officials.

Not all community members were convinced. In 2002, when residents adjacent to MEW counted five cases of Parkinson's disease on one residential block, they suspected TCE was responsible.

II. Vapor Intrusion Rises to the Surface

In 1999, NASA announced plans to create a research park on the former Navy property, centered on the regional TCE plume. It conducted environmental studies in support of that plan and detected TCE vapors inside some of the Navy's old buildings. That information was not widely circulated. After the Navy in October 2000 discovered TCE contamination just 10 feet below the Orion Park military family housing complex, however, members of the Moffett Restoration Advisory Board expressed concern the contamination might be entering the homes. They called for indoor air sampling.

Then two developments on the national level changed the game.

First, in January 2002, the Denver Post published a lengthy series showing how indoor air sampling ordered by the state of Colorado had found significant levels of TCE in homes where the computer model recommended by U.S. EPA had predicted little or no contamination inside. As a result, EPA began a national effort to understand and respond to what became known as "vapor intrusion."

Volatile compounds in shallow groundwater vaporize and rise. Vapor intrusion occurs when these volatile compounds move up through cracks, gaps, or pores in soil and foundations into homes, other buildings, and even the outdoor air. The original cleanup programs at GTE, MEW, Moffett, and thousands of other potential vapor intrusion sites did not fully consider this potentially hazardous pathway.

A. EPA's Draft Toxicity Assessment

The second development that changed the game occurred in August 2001 when EPA released its draft toxicity assessment for TCE. It found children were more susceptible to TCE exposure than adults, and TCE was five to 65 times more toxic than previously believed.

EPA's Science Advisory Board peer review praised the "groundbreaking" assessment, saying, "We believe the draft assessment is a good starting point for completing the risk assessment of TCE. The Panel commends the Agency for its effort and advises it to proceed to revise and finalize the draft assessment as quickly as it can address the advice provided in this report." 2

EPA Region IX took the draft toxicity assessment seriously. In 2002, it adopted new, more stringent screening levels for TCE in both water and air. The new air screening level in residential or "unrestricted use" scenarios, corresponding to one excess lifetime (30-year) cancer among a million people, is 0.017 micrograms per cubic meter. The old screening level in Mountain View, based upon California's standard, is 0.96 micrograms per cubic meter. When EPA calculated the new levels, it did not have the technology to measure such low concentrations accurately. However, consultants for most of the responsible parties in Mountain View gradually have developed techniques to match the new requirements.

Most other EPA regions also adopted more stringent screening levels for TCE, though not all are aggressively investigating vapor intrusion sites. However, because the assessment has not been finalized, the regions face limits in imposing those numbers on responsible parties.

If the new numbers officially are promulgated as a drinking water standard--the maximum contaminant level or MCL--it will force cleanup projects to pump-and-treat longer or adopt innovative remedies to address the contamination. At locations where traces of TCE are found in water supplies, the new standard will require more treatment or the utilization of alternate water sources. The most immediate impact of these more stringent standards, however, will be at sites where shallow contamination is intruding to the surface as vapor because the vapors already have a direct pathway to human receptors.

In spring 2002, the Navy agreed to conduct air sampling at Orion Park. It found low concentrations of TCE both indoors and outdoors. Though the Navy still doubts underlying groundwater pollution is the source, public concern has grown. Local residents are worried about TCE exposure, whether caused by vapor intrusion from cleanup sites or landfills, releases from treatment systems, or continuing industrial releases.

Sampling Simplified

Historical data on groundwater contamination in the most shallow aquifer, taken from monitoring wells or direct punch measurements, are plotted on a contour map. For TCE, concentrations over or within about 100 feet of the 5 parts-per-billion level (the promulgated drinking water standard) usually are used to predict those areas that might have significant vapor intrusion. However, there is some evidence, particularly when preferential pathways are present, a lower concentration should serve as the guide. In Mountain View, some have questioned whether groundwater samples have been taken at enough locations to draw accurate contours in the plume "border" area.

Probes are inserted into the soil underneath and near the perimeter of structures to measure soil gas concentrations. In the absence of preferential pathways, soil gas concentrations are a good predictor of indoor air contamination. Most regulatory agencies use the Johnson- Ettinger model to predict indoor air concentrations from soil gas readings. In the absence of structures, soil gas measurements may be the only way to estimate potential vapor intrusion into new structures.

Using "Summa" vacuum canisters, which look like stainless steel softballs or bowling balls, indoor or outdoor air is collected over multiple eight- or 24-hour periods and sent to labs for analysis, along with meteorological data. Before sampling, units are cleared of people and potential chemical interferents, and they are sealed from outside air. Great care must be taken to avoid contamination of the canisters and the sample.

B. The Test Case: Mountain View

With the Mountain View community expressing increasing alarm about TCE in the air, EPA Region IX decided to make Mountain View a test case for its new approach to vapor intrusion and TCE toxicity. It convened a public meeting in January 2003, and more than 400 people showed up. EPA and the responsible parties--GTE, the Navy, and the group of MEW companies--began new sampling programs to detect TCE and similar compounds in indoor air with a few outdoor samples taken for comparison.

The parties also shut down all the unfiltered air stripping systems in the area, eliminating the releases they had found acceptable two years earlier. They replaced most of the air strippers with water filtration systems, but a number of Mountain View residents expressed concern that the filters from Mountain View would be shipped out of state for incineration, affecting the health of other, poorer communities. Unfortunately, no one conducted outdoor air sampling before the air strippers were shut down.

With support from EPA and the responsible parties, residents formed the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council to review plans and oversee responses. Each month EPA project managers brief the advisory council on site progress, and community participants offer suggestions for strengthening the program. Notably, the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council members have urged EPA and the responsible parties to go beyond the conventional, limited notion of vapor intrusion and consider all sources, receptors, and pathways, and adapt their investigative and remedial strategies as new information becomes available. The advisory council members take what they learn back to City Hall, homeowners' associations, and parent-teachers associations, and the local weekly paper, the Mountain View Voice, covers its meetings.3

Because TCE in air dissipates due to degradation (with a reported half-life of four days), advection (wind), and dispersion, there must be persistent sources in the northeast Mountain View area. While investigators still may find additional active sources, it is more likely the sources are the historical groundwater and soil contamination. There is a large volume of TCE underground in Mountain View, and it "wants" to come to the surface. The local indoor air investigations suggest preferential pathways, such as cracks and utility lines, predominate over homogeneous vertical migration, and such pathways exist outdoors as well as indoors.

The results of the various sampling efforts have trickled in over the past several months. Relatively high levels of TCE vapors have been found in a number of buildings, including at least one home at the GTE site and an older house just across Whisman Road from the MEW area. TCE at levels causing concern has been found in some incomplete commercial buildings, and a utility vault appears to have opened a "preferential pathway" at one of the newer, supposedly vapor-resistant buildings.

Lower levels of TCE have been found outdoors, inconsistently, throughout the area, including at Slater Elementary School. Some of the results at the school were about 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, and other reference locations showed even higher readings. Occasional higher "spikes" of TCE--roughly 3 to 6 micrograms per cubic meter-- have been found in some spots, such as the open space Bay View area of Moffett Field.

The local community appreciates the extent to which the responsible parties, property owners, and regulatory agencies are studying this problem. Some of the work--in lowering detection limits and conducting repeated sampling--is cutting edge. But there is room for improvement.

Outdoor sampling should not be done simply for reference purposes. If contaminants are detected above health-based screening levels, sampling should be designed to map the extent and concentration of the outdoor plume. Because that map will vary over time due to wind and other conditions, there should be multiple "snapshots" taken.

Investigators should use methodologies and technologies to map outdoor contamination plumes over time, and all the parties should work with EPA to create an umbrella database of local sampling results. This would better quantify public exposures. For example, in Mountain View, it would make a difference to learn whether schoolchildren are exposed to TCE above the screening level once a month or most of the time. Also, by correlating measurements to wind direction, frequent or near- continuous measurements would help identify sources.

Air contamination above shallow groundwater plumes seems high enough and consistent enough to merit an additional response. If continuing studies bear this out, more cleanup--not just mitigation techniques such as land-use controls or venting--may be necessary. Engineering controls may be necessary, but if they simply divert contamination without destroying it, they will be insufficient.

The existing remedies being used at the sites are conventional slurry walls and pump-and-treat systems. To protect the public, the regulators and responsible parties should consider newer cleanup technologies that are designed to treat or remove contamination near the surface, such as accelerated bioremediation, advanced oxidation, permeable reactive barriers, etc. These technologies have been demonstrated locally, and some already are being introduced piecemeal at the various properties and operable units.

III. The Health Standard Debate

Although EPA's program in Mountain View is moving in this new direction, it could grind to a halt. The Air Force, on behalf of the entire Defense Department, has challenged EPA's TCE toxicity assessment. The Air Force is challenging the science, but the cost of additional TCE investigation and cleanup is considered by some in the current administration to be prohibitive. EPA has delayed promulgation of new health standards, and it may instruct its regional offices not to use the more protective levels.4 If so, public health in Mountain View and probably hundreds of other sites with serious, shallow TCE contamination will be sacrificed to the economic concerns of the Defense Department and other polluters.

This is not just an abstract problem. After months of requests by one member of the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council, EPA and the MEW companies sampled the air inside her home. They announced the results in May 2004. In her 11-year-old son's bedroom, where he has apparently lived above the TCE plume his entire life, TCE was found at 0.8 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the new health screening level. If that screening standard is raised back to its old levels, then he would supposedly be "safe," even though EPA's Science Advisory Board commended EPA for coming up with health-based exposure levels designed to be protective for children.

Residents of Mountain View and other local communities are better educated, wealthier on average, and more empowered than most. For the past quarter century they have been able to get the government and private parties to address TCE and other pollution in their community in an effective, open fashion. However, if national standards are rolled back, they will become guinea pigs again and will continue to be exposed to contaminants until national policymakers decide the key purpose of environmental protection is to safeguard public health.

IV. To Build or Not to Build

Most vapor intrusion projects are being conducted at sites where people already are living or working directly above contamination. Figuring out when, where, and how best to protect those people is a challenge enough in itself. But in the long run, it may be the tip of the iceberg. Many more new developments, including sensitive uses such as housing, will be proposed for sites contaminated with VOCs.

This is the emerging challenge for brownfields development across the country, as well as any other approach that emphasizes the reuse of polluted properties. At shallow TCE sites, it often is not enough to dig and haul polluted soil and stop pumping contaminated water. Residents and other potential occupants must be assured the air they breathe, indoors and out, will be safe if such developments are to remain viable.

This is not just an environmental problem. The vapor intrusion issue has enormous implications for toxic tort litigation. One of the first physical signs of exposure to TCE in one's own airspace is a propensity to litigate.

Very little thought has gone into how to evaluate development proposals based upon their potential impact on public health. Stakeholders must embark on a better system that permits or even encourages development while delineating, warning of, and addressing vapor intrusion.

Admittedly, many community activists are from the start suspicious of development projects. The developer, after all, is there to make money. Yet Silicon Valley also suffers from a severe, chronic housing shortage. As such, there is a consensus among economic development proponents, environmental advocates, and social justice activists that new housing, even new neighborhoods, should be built on former, sometimes polluted industrial land in Mountain View and nearby cities.

Elsewhere, communities have a greater need for offices, stores, and other uses that might open new contamination pathways. It is imperative to determine how to meet those needs without exposing employees, residents, shoppers, etc. to unacceptable contamination.

In Mountain View, the city just approved 46 new townhomes for the GTE site, each expected to sell for $600,000, and another project is being proposed on the edge of the MEW study area. At Moffett Field, the Army has big plans for new, privatized housing, but the developer has delayed action in the Orion Park area because of the contamination. Other communities across the country are facing similar proposals, but there is as yet no standard protocol for considering vapor intrusion in development.

It is not enough to simply slap sub-slab venting systems onto new housing or commercial units in suspect areas. Projects require careful, up-front review. Fortunately, in approving the 46 new units, Mountain View used the review required under the California Environmental Quality Act to consider and mitigate potential vapor intrusion hazards.

Based on the experience in Mountain View, plus ideas heard elsewhere, the following is a summary of the questions that typically must be resolved if a property has volatile compounds in the soil or groundwater:

A. Is the Property Ready for Development?

Obviously, it is much easier to drill wells, test soil gas, and conduct other characterization and remediation activities before building, though some activities, such as soil removal, can be coordinated with construction. As much investigation and cleanup as practical should be completed before development occurs, and development agreements should guarantee continuing access to the property for the operation of remediation systems, long-term monitoring, and the enforcement of any land-use controls.

Procedurally, this is trickier than it sounds. The agencies responsible for overseeing environmental responses usually are not the bodies that approve and oversee development. At the new 46-unit development in Mountain View, EPA risk assessors reviewed the developer's studies, but it was the city that imposed conditions-- mitigation measures under the California Environmental Quality Act-- after consulting with EPA. For example, it declared, "Construction Activities shall not interfere with ongoing and proposed soil and groundwater remediation and monitoring activities." 5

The precise form of cooperation will vary from state to state, but at a minimum, local planning jurisdictions, such as cities, should coordinate with environmental regulators and determine which site restrictions should be incorporated either into cleanup or development documents.

Some localities are not satisfied with existing regulatory requirements. Ventura County, Calif., where major housing projects are proposed near Boeing's contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory, now requires groundwater and soil testing for TCE and perchlorate (a rocket fuel component that does not pose a vapor intrusion hazard) at proposed property developments within two miles of the lab.

There is at least one instance where a community group believes a site is not ready for development for forensic reasons. In Beaverton, Ore., Victims of TCE Exposure (VOTE) are asking for a halt to redevelopment of the former Viewmaster production plant until all data pertaining to past worker exposures to TCE is collected.6

B. What Vapor Exposures Are Likely?

At existing structures, indoor air sampling can be used to guide decisionmaking, but before buildings are erected, it is important to model potential vapor intrusion. In fact, each site requires a conceptual site model that considers all potential impacts on both indoor and outdoor air. Will digging basements or the preparation of foundations reduce attenuation? Will parking lots or other covers reduce degradation? Will utility lines and vaults create preferential pathways? Do ambient levels of TCE pose a long-term risk?

C. How Can Exposures Be Mitigated?

Unfortunately, today's modeling science, while useful, does not have all the answers, so caution is in order. The city of Mountain View, after taking flak for approving earlier projects at the GTE site, is requiring protective measures even on the 46-unit parcel, where studies show the risk from vapor intrusion is low. The new development will have parking and storage on the ground floor, minimizing vapor releases into living areas. In addition, the city is insisting upon "commercial-grade vapor barriers under each unit."

Above the most contaminated portions of the MEW area, commercial building designs usually have worked. Impermeable slabs and positive air pressure keep indoor contamination levels down to the levels found in outside air. There have been exceptions, however. Where direct measurement has found contamination in indoor air, EPA quickly has required corrective measures.

If a development relies on built-in engineering controls, the longevity of such controls must be considered. In California and other areas subject to land movement, foundations crack. Any development that depends on impermeable foundations over the life of contamination should have a monitoring scheme, as well as a contingency plan should monitoring find new pathways have been opened. Where climate control systems are used to minimize contamination, institutional controls should mandate their proper operation and inspection.

Thus, even apparently effective engineering controls must be integrated into long-term stewardship plans that (1) legally require the controls as part of the remedy and/or development permits, (2) provide for the long-term monitoring of their protectiveness, and (3) provide for additional remedial action if they prove unprotective. Yet to my knowledge, none of the Mountain View sites have any registered institutional controls related to vapor intrusion beyond the CEQA mitigation requirements. If construction and ventilation are regarded as ways to limit human exposure, then they should be legally incorporated into the cleanup.

Of course, if ambient air in the neighborhood of the contamination exceeds health-based screening levels, mitigation that just blows the contaminants outside is no solution. Accelerated cleanup, designed to destroy shallow contamination, should be a requirement if development is to occur.

D. What Should Potential Buyers or Renters Be Told?

In many communities, the market can reinforce regulatory actions to force the protection of public health--if the buying public knows about the potential risk. In California, property buyers are notified about hazardous waste sites in their neighborhood at closing time. Unfortunately, that does not give people time to consider the potential impact of the contamination on their health or their property values. Consequently, many residents of the GTE site are suing project developers.

Mountain View's solution is to require notification as part of normal marketing. That is, potential buyers will be able to weigh the impact of underlying or nearby contamination before they make their decision. This should motivate the developer, and in turn, the responsible parties, to take extra steps to clean up or control contamination.

But even this creative approach has its shortcomings. When individual homeowners put property up for resale, there is no requirement that they notify in advance potential buyers of potential vapor intrusion issues. Some Mountain View homeowners, already unhappy that the publicity about TCE may have limited the appreciation of their property values, may wish to hide the news. To protect subsequent buyers, there should be institutional controls that require notification each time a property is put up for sale. Similarly, potential rental occupants should be given the same warning.

Warning, while valuable, may have unintended consequences. It may, for example, lead to de facto housing discrimination. If all buyers are informed that the more stringent health standards are designed to protect young children, childless families may buy while those with kids look elsewhere. Finally, while knowledge that cleanup is on the way may be enough for buyers in tight housing markets such as Silicon Valley to purchase new units, in other areas buyers may avoid such projects.


It is too late to undo the drinking water TCE exposures of the Viewmaster workers in Beaverton and others across the country who have been exposed to TCE. One can only hope the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council member's son does not contract a serious disease from growing up in a bedroom with TCE vapors. But it is possible to carefully consider and plan development so many fewer people are exposed to volatile organic compounds in the future.

1 The Navy maintains a Web site for the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) at http://www.navybracpmo.org/bracbases/california/moffett/. Among other documents, it includes RAB minutes.

2 The Science Advisory Board's review of EPA's draft TCE Health Risk Assessment is available at http://www.epa.gov/sab/pdf/ehc03002.pdf on the World Wide Web. The cover letter also states, "The Board advises the Agency to move ahead to revise and complete this important assessment. The assessment addresses a chemical, trichloroethylene (TCE), significant for being a nearly ubiquitous environmental contaminant in both air and water, being a common contaminant at Superfund sites, and because it is 'listed' in many Federal statutes and regulations. The draft assessment is also important because it sets new precedents for risk assessment at EPA."

3 For more information, see http://www.whisman.net/nmac/ on the World Wide Web.

4 EPA explained the status of the health standard in its June 2004 Draft First Five-Year Review Report for the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Superfund Study Area, Mountain View, California(pp. 6-8): EPA's Office of Research and Development and Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response have requested additional external peer review of the draft TCE Health Risk Assessment by the National Academy of Sciences. Consequently, review of the toxicity value for TCE may continue for a number of years. In the interim, because of the uncertainties associated with the draft TCE Health Risk Assessment, EPA Region IX is considering both the draft TCE Health Risk Assessment toxicity values and the California TCE toxicity value (similar to EPA's previously listed TCE toxicity value from 1987) in evaluating potential health risks from exposure and making protectiveness determinations. The draft report is available from the NMAC at ht tp://www.whisman.net/nmac on the Web.

5 "City of Mountain View Findings Report/Zoning Permit" No. 211-02- PCZA, April 13, 2004, p. 6.

6 VOTE wrote the city, "It is critical that an independent risk assessment be completed to determine the rate and duration of exposures of the former employees. The integrity of the structure, plant operations, land contours and historic wetland dumping processes of the site must be maintained for such an evaluation."

** Lenny Siegel is executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and director of the Pacific Studies Center in Mountain View, Calif. He is an expert on military facility contamination and has served on numerous advisory committees, including the ASTM/ISR Steering Committee on Brownfields Restoration, California's CLEAN Loan Committee, EPA's Negotiated Rulemaking Committee on All Appropriate Inquiry, the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board, and the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council. More information on CPEO is available at http://www.cpeo.org on the World Wide Web. Siegel can be contacted at lsiegel@cpeo.org.

Copyright 2006 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.


From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
April 18, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Germany lost World War I partly because they lacked access to oil. But they had plenty of coal so after that "war to end all wars," Germany's chemical giant, IG Farben, prepared for Hitler's grand war by figuring out how to turn coal into oil, which they accomplished by 1926. Today, faced with oil costing $70 per barrel, the biggest remaining unit of IG Farben, the BASF corporation, is gearing up to make oil from coal once again. The result seems certain to be ugly because there is no such thing as "clean coal" despite what the chemical and coal industries want you to believe. Note that there's no mention of global warming or coal mine devastation in this coal-friendly article.]

By Claudia H. Deutsch

Coal for fuel? Pretty common. But coal as the main ingredient in wall paints, fertilizers, even grocery bags?

With oil and natural gas prices showing no signs of plummeting, and with incentives to use coal built into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it just might happen. And chemical companies, which use oil and gas as feedstocks -- industry jargon for raw materials -- are hoping it will happen soon.

"We want to be economically feasible in the United States, and coal enables us to do that," said Andrew N. Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical, which has tripled its research into coal-based ingredients.

That thought is echoed by Frank Mitsch, who follows the chemical industry for the brokerage firm BB&T Capital Markets: "Coal can mean the difference between being competitive here or having to ship jobs and plants elsewhere."

In a sense, the chemical industry is simply brushing off an age-old idea. As far back as the 1900's, coal tar extracts were used to make chemicals. And the technologies have long existed to heat coal until it turns to hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas, use the gases directly to make ammonia for fertilizer, or liquefy them to use as building blocks for plastics.

But when natural gas was selling for $2 per million cubic feet, and oil was $10 a barrel, using gasified coal, which costs about $4 per million cubic feet, made no sense. Now, with gas prices still above $7 per million cubic feet and oil prices at more than $70 a barrel, it does.

According to the American Chemistry Council, the industry's cost for feedstocks hit $40.12 billion last year, up from $34 billion in 2004, $25.1 billion in 2003 -- and triple the $12.8 billion in 1999.

Feedstocks amounted to nearly 19 percent of the cost of the $213.75 billion in products the chemical industry shipped last year -- up from 17.5 percent in 2004, 14.5 percent in 2003 and just 8 percent in 1999. For companies that make feedstock-intensive products like ethylene or propylene, two building blocks for plastics, the percentage could be double that.

"It may take three or four years to fine-tune the processes and build the plants, but coal could possibly be the primary feedstock down the road," said William R. Young, an analyst at Credit Suisse.

In fact, it already is in countries like South Africa, where coal is plentiful and oil and gas are scarce. Sasol, based in Johannesburg, has been making and selling coal-based feedstocks for many years.

Several Chinese companies already use coal to make vinyl chloride monomer, a precursor to the polyvinyl chloride used to make construction products like pipes. Andrew Wood, the editor of Chemical Week magazine, said that numerous American and European companies would open plants in China to make other chemicals from coal, too. "No one's made real commitments yet, but it is clear that this is very much the beginning of a wave," he said.

Manufacturers are preparing themselves for an onslaught of orders for coal gasification equipment. General Electric, which bought ChevronTexaco's coal gasification business in July 2004, expects to get most of its profits from projects that use coal gas for generating electricity. "But in the near term, turning coal to chemicals offers the most significant opportunities," said Edward C. Lowe, general manager of gasification for GE Energy.

Mr. Lowe said G.E. had licensed its gasification technology to five large Chinese companies, and was getting "considerable interest" from American companies. G.E.'s involvement is in itself drumming up interest, said Owen A. Kean of the American Chemistry Council.

"When G.E. embraces a technology, it provides yet another form of credibility," he said.

Coal is certainly available. According to the World Energy Council, the United States had recoverable reserves in 2004 of about 254.4 billion tons; China has 114.5 billion tons. "Coal and renewables like corn are probably the only natural resources we won't run out of," said Edward S. Glatzer of Nexant, a chemical industry consulting firm.

Miners, meanwhile, are taking a fresh look at old mines. International Coal owns a large stock of low-grade coal reserves in Indiana and Illinois that had not previously been economical to mine. Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the company's chairman, said he was exploring whether to gasify those reserves for use as feedstock.

"We've got a whole bunch of pipelines within 30 miles of the mines in each direction, and as long as natural gas stays above $6.50, the math works very well," he said.

Even in the unlikely event that natural gas prices drop, gas shortages may still work in coal's favor. Agrium, the Canadian fertilizer company, has a huge ammonia plant in Kenai, Alaska, that is operating at half capacity because of gas shortages. Agrium will decide by this summer whether to invest close to $1 billion to install equipment to convert coal to feedstock and fuel, as well as capturing carbon dioxide that it could sell.

"There's enough coal nearby to operate this complex for more than 50 years," said Lisa Parker, a specialist in government and community relations for Agrium US.

But coal is catching on even in areas where gas is plentiful. Eastman Chemical, once a part of Eastman Kodak, already derives 20 percent of its raw materials from coal in the United States, and in September, Gregory O. Nelson, its executive vice president, told analysts, "We're asking ourselves, 'What if we could bring 30 percent to 40 percent of our raw material base from coal?' "

David N. Weidman, chief executive of Celanese, a chemical company based in Dallas, is asking similar questions. "Coal is easy to access, it's in politically stable regions, and the technologies exist to eradicate environmental impacts," he said. "It's been an underappreciated feedstock for much too long."

It is more expensive to turn coal into a substitute for oil than for gas, but companies that use oil as feedstock are taking a closer look at coal.

"Crude oil still seems the most practical raw material for us, but we certainly are staying abreast of any technologies that could change the economics of our products," said Barry A. Phillips of Bayer Material Science, which makes plastics.

BASF, the world's largest chemical company, has committed $121 million over the next two years to research alternative raw materials, "and yes, coal is on the list," said John Maurer, a BASF spokesman.

For now, though, most chemical companies are piggybacking experiments with coal on their strategies for penetrating emerging markets.

Dow Chemical and Shenhua, China's largest state-run coal producer, are discussing whether to jointly build a plant that would use coal to make ethylene and polypropylene. Celanese is building plants in Nanjing, just north of Shanghai, that will use coal-derived feedstocks to make acetic acid, used in such products as cigarette filters. James S. Alder Jr., vice president for operations, does not rule out the idea of eventually converting the company's American plants to coal, too.

"Coal is a viable long-term feedstock," he said. "That's true for China, for the U.S., for any place with an abundant coal supply."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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