Talking Points : Spring 2016

News in Brief

photo of a set of hi-rise buildings shrouded in fogphoto Flickr user Le NinersCapitalizing on poor air quality in Chinese cities, Canadian company Vitality Air is selling fresh air bottled in Alberta’s Banff National Park.


For a Breath of Fresh Air

Just a few short years ago, talk of bottling pure mountain air to sell to poor souls struggling to breathe in polluted cities was reserved for the pages of science-fiction novels. Then, cities like Beijing started reporting pollution at levels 25 times above the safe limit, and just like that, the stuff of fiction became reality.

As an example of capitalism at its best, or maybe its most frightening, Canadian company Vitality Air has started taking advantage of startlingly poor air quality in cities across the world by selling fresh air bottled in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta’s Banff National Park.

When the Journal reached Troy Paquette in Edmonton, Alberta, the 38-year-old real estate agent cum air entrepreneur had signed off on Vitality’s second shipment of bottles and 4,000 canisters of mountain air were headed to China. The first shipment of 500 bottles sold out almost immediately in late 2015 as news of the kooky concept went viral.

According to Paquette, it all started with a Ziploc sandwich bag of air he and his partner Moses Lam, a mortgage specialist, put on Ebay.

“It was about a year-and-a-half ago, and Moses and I were sitting around talking about different things we could do,” he explains. “Some friends had just been to Asia and were talking about the pollution and how lucky we are here and we decided to see if we could capture our top quality mountain air and sell it to people around the world.”

They lost money on the first Ziploc bag, which sold to an American customer for just 99 cents. The second, larger bag also sold in the United States, but this time for $168 US. And with that, Vitality Air was born.

After some brainstorming to find more economical and efficient ways to get air into canisters and condense it for shipping, the team sent their first batch overseas to be sold via Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.

“I wouldn’t say it was a gag, but more of a fun souvenir product,” Paquette says. “We thought maybe we could sell it in Asia. The media got a hold of us and it skyrocketed from there.”

Table Talk

Trashing Food Waste

Food waste opponents rejoice! France has banned large grocery stores from tossing out unsold food, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

The landmark law – which was passed unanimously by the French Senate in February – mandates that good quality food approaching its “best-by” date be donated to charities and food banks rather than thrown out.

French food banks have applauded the new law, and are now preparing to accommodate an anticipated influx in food donations, which will increase demand for volunteers as well as food storage space. It’s “positive and very important symbolically,” Jacques Bailet, head of Banques Alimentaires, a French network of food banks, told The Guardian. He added that the law will afford charities the opportunity “to increase the quality and diversity of food” they distribute, and that he hoped it would help address a deficit in donations of meat and fresh produce.

Grocery stores are also prohibited from destroying food under the new law. Previously, some French markets had taken measures to discourage foraging in trash bins, including drenching discarded food with bleach.

The law applies to stores that are 400 square meters or greater in area, and imposes fines on markets that do not sign donation contracts with charities.

Grocery store donations already account for 35 percent of the estimated 100,000 tons of food donated to French food banks annually, and Carrefour, France’s biggest supermarket chain, said it welcomed the new requirements. Currently, retailers are responsible for only 11 percent of food waste in France.

The same law was passed in France in May 2015, but according to TIME, was later discarded based on a legal technicality.

Here’s to hoping that the new law will help reduce the 7.1 million tons of food that goes to waste annually in France while also increasing access to food among those struggling to eat.

Currently, the Vitality Air product line includes bottled air and oxygen, with prices starting at $18.99 Canadian (roughly $13.50 US) for three liters of premium oxygen. A twin pack of Lake Louise air, advertised to provide “up to 150 breaths of fresh Banff air,” sells for $59 ($42 US). According to Paquette, customers can use the air for stress relief, taking deep breaths to relax.

Vitality Air isn’t the only company in the clean-air business. As Grist reported, a Beijing restaurant recently made news for charging a fresh air fee to patrons enjoying the facility’s filtration equipment.

With calamity comes opportunity, and with free market capitalism the accepted global ethos, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that entrepreneurs will go to such seemingly absurd lengths to make a few bucks.


Biodiversity Riddle Solved

A long-standing riddle about the role of biodiversity in ecosystems has finally been solved. An international team of researchers has found concrete evidence of the so-called “biodiversity effect,” demonstrating that species diversity is essential to maintaining healthy, stable ecosystems that generate soil, produce oxygen, and detoxify water – all the vital ecosystem “services” that plants and animals, including humans, rely upon.

While the importance of biodiversity may seem like common sense, the biodiversity effect had, until now, remained an unverified assumption due to the difficulties associated with studying vastly complex natural systems. Thanks to recent advances in analytics methods, however, the team of scientists was able to isolate the biodiversity effect from countless other factors when analyzing data from thousands of grassland plots worldwide, proving the hypothesis correct.

“You cannot have sustainable, productive ecosystems without maintaining biodiversity in the landscape,” concludes US Geological Survey research ecologist Jim Grace, who led the groundbreaking study, published in Nature.

The team’s findings have important implications for researchers, policymakers, and advocates alike. Conservationists who have for decades touted the importance of biodiversity can breathe a sigh of relief now that they have solid science to back their claims. The findings also provide new avenues for understanding and addressing pressing environmental concerns like global warming. “These results suggest that if climate change leads to reduced species or genetic diversity, which is a real possibility, that then could lead to a reduced capacity for ecosystems to respond to additional stresses,” says Debra Willard, coordinator for the USGS Climate Research & Development Program.

At long last, it looks like biodiversity is getting the credit it deserves.

Call of the Wild

Obama Doesn’t Quite Run Wild

When Obama appeared on Running Wild With Bear Grylls in December, he became the first sitting US president to appear on reality TV. The president ate leftover salmon caught by a bear, drank tea made with glacial water, and made a s’more for Bear Grylls, the NBC show’s host.

two men looking into a camera, selfie-style, in an outdoor mountain settingphoto the White HousePresident Obama talked climate change on reality TV show Running Wild With Bear Grylls.

More than anything, the episode honed-in on climate change. “One of the main purposes of our trip here is to highlight the effects of climate change and what’s happening to the planet,” Obama says early in the episode. “People need to see it and feel it, as opposed to just reading a bunch of numbers on a page.”

That was pretty easy to do in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, where the episode was filmed. After a hike and a brief stop to examine some bear fur, Obama and Grylls reached the Exit Glacier, which is attached to the Harding Ice Field, the largest ice field in the US. As Grylls pointed out, the ice field has receded 812 feet since 2008, when Obama entered office.

Hosting the President on the show posed certain challenges, and Obama didn’t truly run wild. As The New York Times reported, he couldn’t eat or drink anything that wasn’t first tested. And he arrived “on set” with a bevy of Secret Service agents, snipers, and helicopters.

Nonetheless, he did seem to enjoy their day in the wilderness. As the president quipped: “This beats our usual day in the White House.”

Disadvantage, Trophy Hunters

The slaughter of Cecil, a much-loved, 13-year-old lion who lived in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, by a trophy hunting American dentist last July seems to have prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service into action. In December, the agency announced that it would list African lions under the Endangered Species Act, making it harder to import the animals or their parts into the country.

photo of a lion on a veldtphoto Scott PresnellThe US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list African lions under the Endangered Species Act might
help curb American trophy hunters.

The new rules, which came into effect in January, protect two lion subspecies. Panthera leo leo, found in western and central Africa and India, commonly called the African lion, will be listed as “endangered.” There are only 1,400 individuals of this subspecies left in the wild. Panthera leo melanochaita, found in eastern and southern Africa, number between 17,000 and 19,000, and will be listed as “threatened.”

The ESA listing means a ban on all import of P. l. leo trophies, though permits can be granted in exceptional circumstances, such as for “scientific purposes that benefit the species in the wild, or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species,” the FWS said in a statement. Trophies of P. l. melanochaita, however, will still be allowed in, but only from countries which have “management programs that are based on scientifically sound data.”

The agency’s move comes four-and-a-half years after several animal welfare organizations petitioned the agency to list the African lion as endangered.

Trophy hunting, especially by wealthy American tourists, has been partly responsible for the drastic decline in lion populations in Africa. American trophy hunters are responsible for slaughtering at least 5,647 lions in the past decade, according to data compiled by The Humane Society of the United States. In 2014 alone, 719 African lion trophies were imported into the US. Of those, 620 came from South Africa, and of those 620, more than half – 366 – were killed in captive, canned hunts, where the lions are kept in a fenced-in area so that the hunter can shoot them easily.

The FWS, of course, says that it made the listing decision in response to the dramatic decline of lion populations in the wild. While that may be true, given the timing of the announcement, it’s clear that public opinion helped the agency speed up its decision-making.

Poachers Kill Pilot and Elephants

The war on poaching in Africa has claimed more innocent lives – both human and elephant. On January 29, British helicopter pilot Roger Gower was shot and killed by a poacher while he was investigating yet another elephant slaughter in Tanzania.

The 37-year-old and his passenger, safari guide Nicky Bester, were flying over the Maswa Game Reserve as part of a coordinated effort with the Tanzanian wildlife authorities and the Friedkin Conservation Fund to track down and arrest elephant poachers. The pair was investigating reports that three elephants had recently been killed in the area.

When the helicopter flew close to one of the dead elephants, a poacher broke his cover and opened fire, sending bullets through the fuselage and the floor of the helicopter and hitting Gower in the shoulder and leg.

Gower managed to guide the helicopter to safety, saving the life of his passenger, who escaped without serious injury.

“This tragic event again highlights the appalling risk and cost of protecting Tanzania’s wildlife,” Dan Friedkin, chairman of the Fund, said in a statement.

Tanzania is known for being a poaching hotspot – elephant populations have fallen drastically during the past few years, from roughly 110,000 in 2009 to just 44,000 in 2014. Due to the involvement of international crime gangs, poaching has become a more organized endeavor, heightening danger for elephants and those who protect them. Tanzanian intelligence investigators told The Telegraph that the poachers responsible for shooting down Gower’s helicopter were linked to a syndicate that is selling ivory in Asia.

Following the shooting, the government deployed its National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit to find and prosecute the poachers responsible for Gower’s death. This is the same unit that arrested suspected ivory trafficking kingpin Yang Feng Glan, also known as “the Ivory Queen,” last year.

White Out for Greys

photo of a parrotphoto Mariposa Veterinary Wellness Center

African grey parrots, one of the world’s most popular pet birds, have virtually vanished from their native habitats in West Africa due to poaching and habitat loss. Scientists from BirdLife International and Manchester Metropolitan University, who have been carrying targeted searches for the parrots across Ghana, estimate that 90 to 99 percent of the species’ wild population in Ghana has been lost since 1992. They believe the same pattern likely holds true across the rest of the species’ range. The decline has been particularly steep in the past two decades.

“These are extremely serious losses in this iconic species. If we are not very careful, then wild grey parrots will be lost both from the landscapes of West Africa and from people’s memories,” says Stuart Marsden, one of the researchers and lead author of a report on the birds that appeared in Ibis, the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union.

Demand for African greys, who are known for their intelligence – they can have vocabularies of more than 100 words – and longevity, has remained high even though the international trade in wild birds was outlawed in the 1990s. Captive-bred greys can sell for more than $1,400 each on the Internet.


Dam Delayed

In January, operations at the Belo Monte Dam, located on Brazil’s Xingu River in the Amazon, were delayed once again, just weeks before the giant hydroelectric project was set to begin testing turbines. A Brazilian federal court suspended the dam’s operating license and issued fines of 900,000 reais ($225,000) against the dam’s owner, Norte Energia, and the Brazilian government.

The reason for the suspension? Failure to provide adequate support for local Indigenous groups impacted by the massive construction project. As part of a court-ordered licensing agreement issued in 2014, both Norte Energia and the national government were required to boost the capacity of the Funai office, the national agency that safeguards Brazil’s Indigenous groups. Specifically, the agency was supposed to receive support to manage compensation and social services for Indigenous groups. In her decision, Judge Maria Carolina Valente do Carmo said that these requirements had not been met.

While the court’s ruling is unlikely to prevent the completion of the dam, Christian Poirier, Brazil-Europe advocacy director at Amazon Watch, told The Guardian that it may be helpful in future campaigns. “This case sets an important precedent for the defense of Indigenous rights in the Amazon at a time when the government is set to repeat the Belo Monte disaster,” he said.

Around the World

Buried Threat

Natural gas storage is the kind of “out of sight, out of mind” issue that can easily slip under the public radar. The gas itself is invisible to the naked eye, and many of the massive gas storage facilities that dot the country – primarily at depleted oil and gas fields – are hidden from sight underground. But these facilities are out of mind no longer. In recent months, a leaking storage facility in LA’s San Fernando Valley has made headlines across the country.

Aliso Canyon is one of more than 400 underground natural gas storage facilities spread across the United States. Many of these facilities are operating with aging equipment and little oversight. This combination poses big risks. Natural gas is highly flammable, and exposure can also cause health issues, including headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, and dizziness. Not to mention that methane, the primary component of natural gas is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Here are a handful of the facilities that have popped up on the public radar in recent years.

map of North America with numbered flags showing the locations of natural gas storage

1 Aliso Canyon, CA

LA’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility has been spewing natural gas since October 23, 2015, when a well casing at the site failed. As of February 15, the leak had released 80,000 metric tons of methane. At least 4,401 households in the adjacent Porter Ranch community had been evacuated due to health and safety concerns. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and ordered new regulations for gas storage sites in California. The Aliso Canyon facility is the largest storage site west of the Mississippi, with a maximum capacity of 167 billion cubic feet of gas. As we went to print, Southern California Gas hadn’t managed to cap the leak.

2 Accident, MD

The unfortunately named Accident natural gas storage facility, owned by Spectra Energy, underlies roughly 53 square miles in and around the town of Accident in western Maryland and has a maximum capacity of 64 billion cubic feet. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the site stores out-of-state gas, transported via pipeline, for regional use during the winter. In 2015, local residents initiated a monitoring project to identify possible leaks and document noise levels at the facility.

3 Seneca Lake, NY

Concerned citizens have mounted a determined fight against a natural gas storage facility in Seneca Lake, New York. Unlike the majority of underground US storage facilities, the Seneca Lake site is composed of abandoned underground salt caverns. The caverns, acquired by energy company Crestwood in 2013, had an initial storage capacity of 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In 2014, the Federal Regulatory Commission authorized expansion of the facility to 2 billion cubic feet. Crestwood has indicated that it ultimately intends to expand capacity to 10 billion cubic feet. A local advocacy group, We Are Seneca Lake, has vigorously opposed the expansion plans, organizing regular protests to block the gates of the facility.

4 Cunningham, KS

Cunningham field has a working storage capacity of nearly 41 billion cubic feet, the largest in Kansas. It is one of 17 operational storage facilities in the state. Following a series of explosions in the city of Hutchinson in 2001 that were linked to a leaking gas storage facility and resulted in the death of two persons, Kansas strengthened state regulation of underground facilities. Unfortunately, the regulations were short-lived: A gas company sued the state in federal court, and won. As a result, all of Kansas’s interstate facilities have presumably remained uninspected for more than five years.

No Comment

Climate Skeptics for Hire

You may not have to look far if you’re in the market to hire climate-denier academics willing to conceal their funding sources.

As part of an undercover investigation last year, Greenpeace employees posing as representatives of fake fossil fuel companies approached academics at two US universities, offering to pay the professors to write reports downplaying the risks of climate change. Both professors agreed.

One of the investigators asked William Happer of Princeton University to write a report about the benefits of carbon emissions that would help put the Paris climate agreement in a negative light. Happer agreed, estimating that he could produce the report for $8,000, which he asked be donated to the CO2 Coalition, a group that promotes the benefits of fossil fuels.

“My activities to push back against climate extremism are a labor of love, to defend the cherished ideals of science that have been so corrupted by the climate change cult,” he wrote in an email to Greenpeace.

Approaching Frank Clemente, who formerly worked at Pennsylvania State University, Greenpeace posed as a representative of an Indonesian coal company wishing to commission a paper on the benefits of coal. Clemente estimated that the work would cost the fake company around $15,000.

The Greenpeace investigators asked both professors whether it would be necessary to disclose the source of the funding for their research. Clemente responded that “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US.” Happer said, “If I write the paper alone, I don’t think there would be any problem stating that ‘the author received no financial compensation for this essay.’”

Nondisclosure of such funding is not illegal in the US, but it does go against the ethics of academic publishing.

“Our research reveals that professors at prestigious universities can be sponsored by foreign fossil fuel companies to write reports that sow doubt about climate change and that this sponsorship will then be kept secret,” John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian. “Down the years, how many scientific reports that sowed public doubt on climate change were actually funded by oil, coal, and gas companies?”

Polluting Pizza?

Neapolitan-influenced, wood-fired-oven pizza joints might be all the rage here in the United States, but back in at least one small town in Naples, the much-celebrated pizza napoletana seems to have fallen out of favor. In December, the mayor of San Vitaliano, a town 15 miles north of Naples, decreed a three-month ban on cooking the thin crust pizzas in wood-fired ovens in an effort to curb rising air pollution.

The edict, which also banned the use of wood-fired stoves in bakeries and other eateries unless proprietors install special filters that can trap 80 percent of the pollution, was prompted by “utmost concern” over worsening air quality, and will stay in place until March 31, the BBC reports. It may be reintroduced later if the new filtering systems prove ineffective.

Bad air quality is a longstanding problem for San Vitaliano. The Italian newspaper Il Mattino reported that the town is more polluted than Beijing, while nearby Naples – usually considered one of Italy’s worst offenders in terms of air quality – seems like “a perfumed garden” in comparison.

Many of the town’s 6,000 residents are, naturally, unhappy with the ban. “We can’t be the cause of the smog,” one local said. “Naples has many more pizzerias than San Vitaliano but doesn’t have the same pollution levels. It’s clear that they don’t want to pinpoint the real cause.”


First Nations Fisheries at Risk

First Nations communities have fished along the coast of British Columbia for thousands of years. New research, however, suggests that these communities are at risk of having their annual fisheries catch cut nearly in half thanks to climate change.

University of British Columbia scientists found that rising ocean temperatures could mean significant changes to where fish live along Canada’s western coast, with many species moving to cooler waters farther north. Unlike large-scale commercial fishing operations, First Nations communities are largely confined to traditional territories for fishing, which makes them especially vulnerable to fluctuating fish populations.

“Climate change is likely to lead to declines in herring and salmon, which are among the most important species commercially, culturally, and nutritionally for First Nations,” says Lauren Weatherdon, one of the researchers on the study.

While the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth are predicted to be the most severely impacted, all coastal First Nations communities will likely face decreases of up to 29 percent in salmon catches and 49 percent in herring catches by 2050. This could translate into economic losses between $6.7 and $12 million annually by 2050.

The study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, modeled the impacts of climate change, such as changes in ocean temperature and oxygen levels, on 98 fish and shellfish species in the North Pacific between 2000 and 2050.

The findings underscore the importance of limiting global carbon emissions, and not only for the benefit of large-scale commercial outfits that have been the focus of much previous research. “The Paris Agreement acknowledges that our efforts to tackle climate change must reflect the concerns of indigenous people,” says Yoshitaka Ota, a co-author of the study. “However, little is known about the impacts of climate change on coastal indigenous peoples. This study demonstrates the importance of understanding diverse socio-cultural interests.”

Plastic for Dinner?

More bad news for fishermen and pescatarians – the world’s oceans may be home to more plastic debris than fish by 2050.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report has found that about 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year – the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic rubbish every minute. At current consumption rates, that will have grown to two trucks a minute by 2030, and four a minute by 2050, by which time, at least by weight, there will be as much plastic in the oceans as fish.

8687410631_37c763240a_o.jpgphoto Lindsey HoshawBy 2050, there may be as much plastic, by weight, in the oceans as fish.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like plastic usage is going to decrease by any significant measure any time soon. Given its functionality and low production costs, the use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

Based on interviews with more than 180 experts in the field and an analysis of over 200 reports, the WEF study found that more than a quarter of all plastic is used for packaging, the most popular use of the material. But only 14 percent of this packaging is collected for recycling. The reuse rate for plastic is terrible compared to other materials – 58 percent of paper and up to 90 percent of iron and steel gets recycled.

“One of the biggest problems [to] focus on is single use and disposable plastic,” Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, an Earth Island project, told Al Jazeera. Cohen called on governments to take steps to prevent further plastic waste by forcing producers to take back the plastic used in packaging. “We all have the power to do something to reduce the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis,” she added.

The World Economic Forum concluded that the only way to avoid a disaster is to radically improve the economics and uptake of recycling. That means giving people incentives to collect plastic garbage, recycle, use reusable packaging, as well as encouraging countries to drastically improve their waste collection infrastructure.

Forest and the Trees

Hunting Hurts Hardwoods

Hunting may not seem like an obvious climate culprit, but, according to new research, it joins the long list of human behaviors contributing to global warming.

In the tropics, larger animals and birds play a critical role in maintaining forest ecosystems. They are particularly important when it comes to the dispersal of large seeds, including those of hardwood trees, which they spread throughout the forest through defecation.

Unfortunately, these same animals – including woolly spider monkeys, tapirs, and toucans – are also the victims of over-hunting, primarily by subsistence hunters. Researchers at São Paulo State University in Brazil found that hardwoods like Brazil nut and wild cacao and açai trees are being replaced by smaller-seeded softwood trees like local varieties of pine and laurel, which, unfortunately, store less carbon than hardwoods.

The study, published in Science Advances, focused on the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil, and estimated that 10 to 15 percent of carbon storage in mixed forests is lost as hardwoods become scarcer. This is no small loss – tropical forests are responsible for roughly 40 percent of land-based carbon sequestration worldwide.

“Policies to reduce carbon emissions from tropical countries have primarily focused on deforestation,” Carlos Peres, a professor at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian. “But our research shows that a decline in large animal populations poses a serious risk for the maintenance of tropical forest carbon storage.” He added that “this is a fairly universal process,” and is happening across the tropics.

Finding alternative means of sustenance for subsistence hunters would be a double-win, saving irreplaceable species while also maintaining a vital climate buffer in tropical forests.

Temperature Gauge

Melting Icebergs = Cooler Climate

Aside from polar bears, melting icebergs are the ultimate icons for climate change. Temperatures warm, giant sections of ice calve from glaciers, and the icebergs drift around the oceans melting away.

New research, however, adds a twist to this familiar tale. Scientists at the University of Sheffield have found that as global warming continues to increase the number of icebergs calving off of Antarctica, the water melting from the icebergs is actually slowing climate change.

Here’s how. This glacial water is nutrient rich – chock-full of iron – and supports thriving phytoplankton blooms as it melts into the ocean. These phytoplankton, in turn, extract carbon from the air through photosynthesis. As the phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, sequestering the carbon they have captured.

8466310307_e9bd26a443_o.jpgphoto Flickr user rava51New research indicates that the water melting from icebergs is helping to slow climate change.

“The research is important as it has shown that there is more carbon stored in the Southern Ocean than previously calculated, which will have knock-on consequences for the global carbon budget,” Grant Bigg, lead author on the study and a professor of earth systems science at Sheffield, told The Huffington Post. “It also demonstrates an unusual negative feedback on climate – even if it is a secondary one and merely slowing climate change,” he said.

The study, published in January in Nature Geoscience, was based on satellite images of large icebergs – those at least 18 kilometers long – in the Antarctic Ocean. In the images, streams of green, phytoplankton-rich water could be seen extending hundreds of kilometers from the icebergs.

The authors estimate that the negative feedback loop may be to thank for 10 to 20 percent of carbon storage in the remote Antarctic Ocean, somewhere between 10 to 40 million tons of carbon a year, in total. That won’t compensate for the roughly 10 gigatons of carbon emitted annually around the world, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.

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