The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

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Driven in part by the coronavirus recession and reductions in driving and air travel, the number of oil and gas drilling rigs operating in the U.S. has plummeted by 70 percent over the last year, falling to a record low since World War II.

At least 14 oil and gas companies have declared bankruptcy since March. The casualties include, last week, Chesapeake Energy, a once high-flying but heavily indebted pioneer of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Oil and gas is a famously boom and bust industry. But Andrew Lipow, a Houston-based energy analyst and President of Lipow Oil Associates, LLC, said that the coronavirus could cause permanent shifts in American working and transportation habits that could impose long-term harm on the fossil fuel industry.

“One thing that we’ve seen with this virus is the ability of companies to allow a significant amount of their workforce to telecommute and work from home,” Lipow said. “And of course, that I expect to continue going into the future. Which means there is going to be less demand for gasoline.”

The global plastics industry is booming, adding trash to our oceans and greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Plastics production has grown even during the coronavirus recession because of the increased need for disposable gloves, cups, and bags.

The epicenter of the U.S. plastics industry is along the Gulf Coast. There, about 60 miles west of New Orleans, in St. James, Louisiana, a Taiwanese company called Formosa Plastics is proposing to build North America’s largest plastics plant on a former plantation site that includes an historic burial ground for slaves.

The mostly African-American community of St. James is fighting to stop the $9 billion dollar project, in part because of concerns that the plant’s air and water pollution would jeopardize their health.

Last week, a leader of those protests, Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and a colleague were arrested by police. Their crime? Six months earlier, as part of a day of activism to educate the public about the problem of plastic pollution, and bring the issue home, they placed a box of plastic waste  -- tiny pellets discharged from a Formosa plastics factory in Texas – on the porch of a home owned by a plastics industry lobbyist.

“It’s an abuse of the law to claim that, by leaving a box of their own product on their own doorstep, we are somehow the bad guys,” Rolfes said. “It’s wrong.”

It was just after dawn when I set out paddling in my kayak to find nature in one of the least natural places on Earth.

I had launched into the Patapsco River from Fort Armistead Park near the base of the Francis Scott Key Bridge south of Baltimore. Truck traffic roared overhead on Route 695.   Ahead of me, the morning sun sparkled silver in a rippling path toward the old Sparrows Point steel mill.  Behind my back rose the smokestacks of a pair of coal-fired power plants, a chemical factory, sewage plant, and the mounded back of the city’s Quarantine Road landfill.

But the sky was blue, the breeze was balmy, and out on the water I felt away from it all.

In the distance, I saw the outlines of an island covered in trees, with a squat rectangular lighthouse near the center.

Paddling closer, it became clear that it was a manmade structure: an abandoned fortress, with weather-streaked, stone walls, tufted with grass and featuring an intimidating row of cannon ports whose iron doors had rusted long ago.

This was Fort Carroll, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1847 to defend Baltimore from naval attacks like the one the British had launched from near this location three decades earlier in the War of 1812.

Thomas RaShad Easley grew up in an apartment in an urban neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. But he learned to love nature, in part because his grandparents cultivated a lush garden amid the concrete and blacktop.

He was also an Eagle Scout, and Scouting got him out of the city and into the woods, where he enjoyed  spending time at Tannehill State Park.

“Yes, we would go camping, and I’m glad that we did it. Because at first, I didn’t want to do it,” Easley recalled. “And then, when we got out there, it was so much fun. You know, me and the guys. And the other good thing about our scout troop was we were a diverse scout troop. So we had black, white, as well as brown young men in our troop.  So it was almost like a social experiment – Troop 49 in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Easley went on to earn an undergraduate degree in forest science from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University; a master’s degree in forest genetics is from Iowa State University; and eventually a doctorate from North Carolina State University. He is now an assistant dean at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

But in his work with environmental groups, he noticed that they were not like Troop 49 in Birmingham.  They were almost entirely white – with very few African Americans like him, or Latinos or other minorities. This ethnic narrowness caused a problematic narrowness of focus – in terms of both audience and subject matter.

  

NPR/Associated Press

In his documentary titled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, filmmaker Ken Burns described why parks and wildlife preservers – lands owned by the public – are really an American invention.

“They are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature,” narrator Peter Coyote says in the film.

“They embody something less tangible, yet equally enduring.  An idea, born in the United States, nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical. What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by aristocrats, by the monarchs, by the wealthy.”

Not so in the U.S., where parks have always embodied American ideals, such as freedom of assembly by the rich as well as the poor, the powerful as well as the homeless.

This is especially true for the national park immediately north of the White House: Lafayette Square Park.  These seven acres, shaded by trees surrounding a statue of President Andrew Jackson, for decades have served as an open space for the First Amendment for anyone who wants to raise a voice in protest.

The recent legal actions by the attorneys general of Maryland and Virginia against the Trump Administration’s EPA over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup are evidence that the landmark 2010 Bay restoration agreement has failed.

Under President Obama, the Bay cleanup effort was actually making progress. The overall health of the Chesapeake improved from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 54 out of 100 in 2016, according to annual report cards issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

But under President Trump, the Bay’s health rapidly deteriorated, falling from a 54 in 2017 to a 44 last year. Now, some of that decline was because of increased rainfall, driven in part by climate change. More rain flushes more farm fertilizer and other pollutants into the Bay.

However, another cause was ideological: the Trump Administration is purposely weak on environmental enforcement – especially with regard to the Bay’s biggest polluter, Pennsylvania. And Trump’s EPA has been energetically working – even during the coronavirus shutdown – to eliminate pollution control regulations.  

This is the call of a meadowlark. (Sound of meadowlark plays). This is an upland sandpiper. And this excitable fellow is a burrowing owl. (Hooting sound of owl)

What they have in common is that they are among more than 5,000 species of birds whose survival is threatened because of the expansion of industrial-style, modern agriculture around the world. Populations of meadowlarks, for example, have fallen by 71 percent since 1966.  And it’s not just birds.  Farming and development have reduced the population of all wild animals – mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians -- by more than half since 1970.

This is according to a new book, titled “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land," written by John Marzluff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington.

Marzluff explains how stripping away forests and meadows to replace them with monoculture fields of crops like corn and soybeans unintentionally brings an end to meadowlarks and other wildlife.  

New Book Describes Modern Farming’s Damage to Biodiversity 

This is the call of a meadowlark. (Sound of meadowlark plays). This is an upland sandpiper. And this excitable fellow is a burrowing owl. (Hooting sound of owl)

What they have in common is that they are among more than 5,000 species of birds whose survival is threatened because of the expansion of industrial-style, modern agriculture around the world. Populations of meadowlarks, for example, have fallen by 71 percent since 1966.  And it’s not just birds.  Farming and development have reduced the population of all wild animals – mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians -- by more than half since 1970.

This is according to a new book, titled “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land," written by John Marzluff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington.

Marzluff explains how stripping away forests and meadows to replace them with monoculture fields of crops like corn and soybeans unintentionally brings an end to meadowlarks and other wildlife.

This is the call of a meadowlark. (Sound of meadowlark plays). This is an upland sandpiper. And this excitable fellow is a burrowing owl. (Hooting sound of owl)

What they have in common is that they are among more than 5,000 species of birds whose survival is threatened because of the expansion of industrial-style, modern agriculture around the world. Populations of meadowlarks, for example, have fallen by 71 percent since 1966.  And it’s not just birds.  Farming and development have reduced the population of all wild animals – mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians -- by more than half since 1970.

This is according to a new book, titled “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land," written by John Marzluff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington.

Marzluff explains how stripping away forests and meadows to replace them with monoculture fields of crops like corn and soybeans unintentionally brings an end to meadowlarks and other wildlife.

The Attorneys General of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump Administration’s EPA on Monday over its failure to enforce a landmark Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement signed in 2010.

That agreement has a goal of forcing the Bay region states to put water pollution control programs in place within five years – by a deadline of 2025 -- to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the estuary by about 25 percent.

The problem is that Pennsylvania and New York have fallen far short in their plans and investments. And the overall health of the Bay has only declined since the agreement was signed, slipping from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 44 out of 100 last year, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said he and his allies are taking legal action against the Trump EPA for failing to penalize Pennsylvania and New York for refusing to meet their Bay cleanup obligations. 

Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed 38 bills passed in March by the Democratic-majority General Assembly. The governor explained that the economic crash caused by the coronavirus had opened up a massive state budget deficit which made the new proposals– including for increased funding for public schools – suddenly unaffordable.

However, at least one of the bills Hogan vetoed had absolutely nothing to do with state funds or the coronavirus.

That was Senate Bill 300, which would have outlawed the use of a pesticide called chlorpyrifos that researchers have concluded can cause brain damage in children and kill aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.

Via Publisher Roman and Littlefield

With the number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. seeming to decline, but unemployment soaring and the economy in free-fall, President Trump held a press conference recently to talk about a political imperative: getting capitalism off the stretcher.

“There is a hunger for getting our country back and it’s happening faster than people would think,” Trump told reporters. “Ensuring the health of our economy is vital to ensuring the health of our nation.”

Part of the prescription the president is expected to announce later this week, during a rollout of a new administration plan to stimulate the economy, is a slashing of environmental regulations, as well as further tax cuts, loans and grants for business.

U.S. Department of Defense

The coronavirus crisis has contributed to a crash in oil prices, as people are driving less while working at home and many businesses are shut down. Competition between Saudi Arabia and Russia has also caused a glut in global oil production.

As a result, many oil and gas companies are suffering huge financial losses, laying off workers, and asking the federal government for a bailout or some kind of government assistance.

President Trump held a meeting on Friday at the White House with the CEO’s of eight major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Phillips66.“I just want to start by saying it’s an honor to be with you,” Trump told the executives.

“I know most of you… But I know all of you by seeing you on the covers of all the business magazines and other magazines. And you’ve done a great job and we’ll work this out.  And we’ll get our energy businesses back. I’m with you 1,000 percent.”

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Thirteen years ago, after a series of near-miss pandemics, including those caused by the swine flu, bird flu and the SARS virus (which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome), U.S. health officials decided they needed to build an additional 70,000 ventilators.  

Ventilators, of course, are medical devices that hospitals use to help patients breathe when they are suffering from pneumonia or lung failure. The goal was to save lives in case of a future global pandemic of the kind we are now experiencing with the coronavirus.

According to reporting in The New York Times, the public health project got off to a great start. The federal Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract to a small and nimble California company called Newport Medical.

Tom Pelton

 

In these times of the coronavirus, the public health strategy of “social distancing” is hard on people because humans are, by their nature, a social species.

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Kavin Senapathy is a freelance journalist who was drawn to the field of science blogging nine years ago. It was just after her first child was born and she found herself obsessed with and terrified about her daughter’s health.

Tom Pelton

Maryland faces a critical decision point in its decades-long effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The poultry industry on the Eastern Shore produces about 300 million chickens a year. But the byproduct is about a half billion pounds more manure than can be absorbed by crops when farmers spread the litter as fertilizer for their corn and soybeans. That leads to runoff of phosphorus pollution into rivers, streams and the Bay.

In about two years, pollution control regulations imposed by Governor Larry Hogan’s administration will restrict manure application on about 160,000 acres of farms on the Eastern Shore that are already overloaded with phosphorus. But state officials do not know what to do with all the extra tons manure that farmers will no longer be able to spread under the new rules.

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It’s a watershed moment in American politics. Climate change and the environment, for the first time, have risen to become among the top issues in a Presidential election. President Trump is campaigning against the whole idea of environmental regulations and has falsely labelled climate change a “hoax.”

In stark contrast, all of his Democratic challengers are pledging unprecedented action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders: “What the scientists are telling us is – in fact – they have under-estimated the severity and speed in which climate change is damaging not only our country, but the entire world.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said: “I think it is the existential threat to humanity. It’s the number one issue.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg made this statement: “Climate change is not a science problem – it is a political problem.”

And Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed: “I support the Green New Deal.  We have got to make change. We’ve got to make big change. And we’ve got to do it fast – we’re running out of time.”

But what’s fascinating about the Democratic candidates is that all of them – while promising action on the climate – have completely abandoned the main policy vehicle for combating global warming that Democrats, and even a few Republicans, championed until a few years ago.

That was the imposition of a carbon tax – or a Wall Street friendly “cap and trade” system – to gradually increase the price of oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuels to create economic incentives, in the free market system, for cleaner energy.

Island Press

The home-made looking video is popular on YouTube, with hundreds of thousands of views. It was produced by a group called the “Science Moms,” who say they’re just regular mothers with PhD’s who want to set the record straight.  In a seemingly casual and candid way, they mock the concept that natural things are better, and tell their viewers not to buy organic produce.

“The marketing behind organic farming has really convinced people that organic is more environmentally friendly, and doesn’t use pesticides and is healthier – and the data does not support any of those claims,” one of the Science Moms proclaims.  “There’s no health benefits from eating an organic diet.  There’s nothing really to be gained. It’s just more expensive.”

What the Science Moms do not tell the viewers is that the group has ties to the Monsanto chemical company and its owner, Bayer pharmaceuticals.  One of the main Science Moms is actually policy director for Biology Fortified Inc., which Monsanto has described in internal memos as a ‘partner’ in its public relations battle to dispute the cancer-causing properties of one of its products, glyphosate, the world’s most popular weed killer.

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp, is sprayed on millions of acres of non-organic crops around the world.

Public Domain Pictures

Jay Falstad, Executive Director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, first became obsessed with balloons a few years ago. He was out strolling with his daughter and noticed some litter.

“My daughter and I found a cluster of balloons here on Unicorn Lake,” Falstad said. “And on those balloons was a note written in Sharpie pen that said, ‘If you find these balloons, call this number. We want to see how far they’ve travelled.’ And so, I called the number and it turned out they originated from Dayton, Ohio, and had been released four days earlier, and travelled almost 500 miles and ended up landing here. It was after that that I began to see balloons everywhere. You’d see them in farm fields, and hanging in trees.”

He was not the only one haunted by balloons…kind of like a character in the movie It based on the Stephen King novel about the sinister clown. But in this case, the victim was the Chesapeake Bay.

mgaleg.maryland.gov

While many Republicans have been in denial about the realities of climate science – notably the denier-in-chief, President Trump, who falsely labels climate change a “hoax” – Baltimore County State Senator Chris West is what you might call a fact-based Republican.

West, a 69-year-old resident of West Towson, is an attorney and former President of the Bar Association of Baltimore City.

He is co-sponsoring a bill, introduced on Friday in the Maryland senate, that would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the state by requiring a gradual shutdown of the state’s six remaining coal-fired power plants between 2023 and 2030.

“I’ll be honest with you,” West said. “I don’t want my grandchildren turning to their dad and saying, ‘You know, we’ve got this terrible environmental problem, and we’re facing daytime temperatures of somewhere between 105 and 110 degrees in the middle of the summer, what did Granddad do about this?’ And I don’t want my son telling my grandchildren, ‘Well, your grandfather – he didn’t believe global warming was real. And he did nothing.’ My feeling is, it’s pretty clear it’s real, and we need to do something.”

The Intercept

Since 1971, 10 states – led by Oregon and Vermont – have passed bottle deposit laws. These so-called “bottle bills” have proven to increase recycling rates and reduce litter on roadsides and in waterways. The laws give people a financial incentive, often five or ten cents per bottle or can, to pick up the litter and return the containers for a cash reward.

For example, Michigan passed a 10 cent bottle deposit law in 1976 and today enjoys a 95 percent recycling rate for bottles and cans. That’s almost four times the 25 percent rate in Maryland, which does not have a deposit law.

Six times in Maryland over the last decade, legislators have proposed bottle bills. Predictably, soda and beer manufacturers and store chains have fought the laws, because they don’t want to lose any income or take responsibility for handling dirty containers.

But that’s not why the bottle bills keep dying in Maryland and other states. The really effective lobbying against them in recent years has come from county and city recycling programs. These local government programs do not want to lose any of their own income, either from re-selling glass and aluminum or through grants from phony environmental groups such as Keep America Beautiful that are quietly bankrolled by the soda companies.

Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner popped the top off of this recycling corruption scandal in a recent article published on the news website The Intercept.

Wikipedia

To the strains of Lee Greenwood’s song “Proud to be an American,” President Trump took the stage at the American Farm Bureau convention in Austin last week and boasted about repealing water pollution control regulations across the U.S.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all – the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the U.S. Rule,” Trump said, to cheers from the crowd. “It’ s gone.”

The Obama Administration imposed the Waters of the U.S. Rule in 2015 to protect intermittent streams and scattered wetlands that are not adjacent to rivers or lakes. But what Trump did not tell the farm convention is that the Obama-era regulations already exempted most farming practices, as did previous federal and state wetlands protection rules.

So what was at stake in the Trump Administration’s elimination of the Waters of the U.S. rule was not the growing of corn, soybeans or other crops. It was the ability of farmers to sell their land to real-estate developers like Trump who want to build malls and subdivisions on farms with wetlands.

Tom Pelton

In North Central Maryland, near the base of the Conowingo hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River, a small group of protesters rallied on Friday. They were complaining about an agreement that the dam’s owners, the Exelon Corporation, recently signed with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration.

The protesters’ signs read, “Don’t let Exelon off the hook!” and, “We all live downstream.”

Ted Evgeniadis is the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, a nonprofit clean water advocacy group that organized the event. “The reservoir is at capacity, and as it stands now, the dam is a ticking time bomb toward the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

His group is urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject a proposed relicensing of the 92-year old dam for another half century. Evgeniadis’ main concern is that Maryland’s agreement with Exelon – which would allow the relicensing -- does nothing to solve the biggest problem with the dam. Over the decades, millions of tons of tons of sediment and pollution have built up behind the dam, and the muck keep getting flushed downriver into the Chesapeake Bay during big storms.

Office of Governor Larry Hogan

In 1983, 1987 and 2000, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the other Chesapeake Bay region states all signed much-heralded agreements to clean up the nation’s largest estuary.

But these agreements all failed to make any progress in the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay for a simple reason: They were purely voluntary, with no enforcement mechanism.

Then, in 2010, the Obama Administration – after being sued – issued a new and revised Bay cleanup plan that everyone praised as being the real breakthrough. For the first time, EPA set firm numeric pollution limits for the states, and threatened to penalize the states that failed to meet the cleanup targets by the deadline of 2025.

For a few years, there was real hope for the Bay’s restoration – despite the stubborn refusal of the Bay’s biggest polluter, Pennsylvania, to stop dumping on its downstream neighbors in Maryland and Virginia.

Then, on January 3, the Trump Administration’s EPA caused an uproar. The Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Program director suddenly announced that the 2010 agreement was, in fact, not enforceable, and was instead just “informational” and “aspirational” – just like all the previous failed bay cleanup agreements.  The Trump EPA would do nothing to crack down on Pennsylvania’s pollution.

The Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opened today. The two most important environmental issues being debated this year in Annapolis are – once again -- climate change and the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

State Delegate Kumar Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County and chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, is proposing legislation that would shut down Maryland’s six remaining coal fired power plants.

“I do want to emphasize the pernicious effects of coal on our environment,” Barve told a telephone press conference organized by the Sierra Club. “Of course, coal not only produces more carbon dioxide for the atmosphere, but coal soot – the soot that’s not caught by the power plants, and ends up going into the atmosphere. It’s a terrible pollutant for human and animal life.”

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

During the last decade, when the Chesapeake Bay region states publicly promised to increase their efforts to clean up the nation’s largest estuary, four of the six states quietly cut funding for the state environmental agencies responsible for carrying out that cleanup.

Among the worst offenders, according to an examination of state budget documents by the Environmental Integrity Project, was Pennsylvania, the state that contributes by far the most pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Governors and lawmakers in the Keystone State cut funding and staffing at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection by about 15 percent between 2008 and 2018, even as the overall state budget grew by 18 percent over this time.

 

Bonnie Bick is an unassuming person. She’s a 72-year-old former flower child and pre-school teacher with a soft voice, who has little money and few possessions, but loves walking in the woods near her small brick house in southern Maryland.

But among land conservationists, she is a hero – a fierce and tenacious fighter who outlasted developers and the political establishment in Charles County to stop a highway project – the Cross County Connector, which would have fed sprawling subdivisions. The project has now turned into a proposal for a much greener bike path surrounded by trees.

“It’s a very exciting end for that terrible, long ordeal – fighting the Cross County Connector,” Bick reflected. “It was like a miracle to stop it.”

Over three decades of unpaid and often unrecognized behind-the-scenes work, Bick took on development projects that many people thought were unstoppable -- but it was the gentle, patient, tenacious Bonnie Bick who proved unstoppable. The result: She quietly helped to save thousands of acres of green space in a state increasingly consumed by cul-de-sacs and strip malls.

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During a recent press event, President Trump declared that he is urging his Environmental Protection Agency to weaken federal water conservation standards because of troubles that unnamed friends of his have been having with their toilets.   

It was 9 am Friday outside an office tower on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore. Thirteen activists wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with a rising sun emblem and wielding bright yellow and orange cardboard shields gathered to protest at the office of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

Evelyn Hammid, a local leader of the group, called the Sunrise Movement, explained what the organization is all about.

“We are a movement of young people across the country mobilizing to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, and ensure that we have a just transition to renewable energy," Hammid said.

The group’s goal that day was to march into Senator Cardin’s office and demand that he sign a written pledge to support the Green New Deal. It's a resolution that outlines a World War II-scale mobilization to transform the U.S. economy so that it has net zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years. 

I ask her:  In this era of the Trump Administration’s outright denial of climate science, is it perhaps politically counter-productive to protest a Democrat like Ben Cardin who has a generally strong record on the environment?

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