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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 3, 1994

Air Date: June 3, 1994

SEGMENTS

Virginians Versus Disney / Thomas Lalley

Thomas Lalley reports from the rolling hills of Piedmont, Virginia on a planned project by the Magic Kingdom people that some residents find less than magical. Disney Corporation's proposed historical theme park will bring jobs and 200 million dollars in infrastructure improvement to the area. But some local environmentalists think the project will cause suburban sprawl and turn the area into another Los Angeles. (07:59)

Pit Stops for Migrating ShorebirdsThreatened by Growth / Nancy Lord

Every spring, millions of West Coast shorebirds migrate north along a route known as the Pacific Flyway. Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on how development along this path may endanger the shorebirds’ future. The migrators need open space to rest along their route. If that habitat disappears under buildings and pavement, the shorebirds may be close behind. (02:38)

Whiz Kid Invents New Process for Recycling Plastics

Host Steve Curwood talks with high school senior Forrest Anderson about the plastics recycling process he created. Anderson won first place in a Westinghouse Science Talent Competition for his invention, which can recycle a mix of plastic types and creates no toxins or solid waste. (03:45)

The Toscanini of Trash / Joe Richmond

Reporter Joe Richmond profiles Skip LaPlante, a musician who salvages everyday objects from dumpsters and transforms them into instruments. From McDonald's-straw oboe reeds to the resonant qualities of styrofoam containers, LaPlante's creations combine unique sounds and an environmental message. (06:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Dan Ferguson, Guy Nelson, Thomas Lalley, Joe Richman
GUEST: Forrest Anderson
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

A short way from the nation's Capitol is a gently rolling region that's Virginia's historical heartland: the homes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The site of famous civil war battles. And perhaps the future home of a Disney Corporation theme park.

REYNOLDS: An American history park belongs here in Virginia, where so much of America's history began.

CURWOOD: But the Disney plans have prompted an outcry from some historians and ecologists.

ELLIOT: What the General Assembly of Virginia have done in response to Disney and in response to the governor is take a step that I think sort of irrevocably starts the national Capitol region into spreading out and becoming another Los Angeles.

CURWOOD: Also this week, some novel recycling ideas: from plastics to music on Living on Earth. First this news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: I'm Peter Thomson with this week's environmental news. A cross-border fishing war could be in the offing if a deal isn't struck soon between the US and Canada over Pacific salmon harvests. US boat operators say Canadians are taking too many American fish, but as Dan Ferguson reports from Vancouver, the Canadians make the same charge against the Americans.

FERGUSON: It's a dispute over fishing quotas. Both countries agree quotas are needed to prevent the kind of over-fishing that has already seen commercial salmon fishing banned along the Washington and Oregon coasts. But the negotiations to set those quotas collapsed, amid Canadian complaints that US fishermen operating in the waters south of the Alaska panhandle are intercepting an unfair amount of salmon that originate from spawning rivers in Canada. The Canadians claim the US fishermen are taking about 9 million Canadian-born salmon every year, while Canadians just get 4 million American salmon. Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin says it has been impossible to negotiate a deal, because the American delegations from Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and native groups have no unified position. Tobin says the only way of resolving this dispute now is direct intervention in the negotiations by President Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. If no deal can be reached, he warns, there is nothing to prevent an all-out fish war, where US and Canadian fishermen try to grab as much salmon as they can before the other side does. For Living on Earth, this is Dan Ferguson in Vancouver.

THOMSON: Skies are clearing in the Southwest, but clouding up over the East. No, it's not the weather report, it's the long-range smog report for national parks and wilderness areas. The government-commissioned study was conducted at the University of California at Davis. It found a slight decline in sulfate pollution over remote sites in the Southwest over the last decade. That means visitors to the Grand Canyon, for instance, may be enjoying clearer views. But researcher Robert Eldridge says sulfate pollution in parks in Virginia and Tennessee seems to be getting worse.

ELDRIDGE: Generally speaking, in the Shenandoah, Great Smokies area, the visibility is only about 8 or 10 miles. So it is extremely poor, much worse than it is in the western United States.

THOMSON: Sulfur particles are the worst air pollutant in terms of visibility. The report says the improvement in the West is likely due to lower emissions from coal-fired power plants. It says the higher sulfur levels at the Eastern sites confound explanation. Reported emissions there have not risen.

Environmental goals will be meaningless unless basic human needs are met first. That's according to the annual report of the United Nations Development Program. It says freedom from hunger, disease, and poverty are the foundation of sustainable development, and it calls for a new partnership between rich and poor nations to provide all people with basic education, health care, family planning services, and safe drinking water. Along with the emphasis on people-centered development, the UN development program's goals affirm the basic environmental principle of the 1992 Earth Summit: economic growth which maintains natural resources from one generation to the next. This is Living on Earth.

States have the right to control the flow of water over hydroelectric dams in order to protect river ecosystems. That's the decision of the US Supreme Court in a Washington State case with national implications. Guy Nelson of member station KUOW reports.

NELSON: The decision strips the power to regulate water flow from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and gives it to the states. Washington's Attorney General, Christine Gregoir, who argued the case before the high court, says her state will use the ruling to oversee several existing hydro projects. Most of the Federal licenses for the state's dams expire over the next 20 years, and Gregoir says they will now have to obtain clean water certificates from the state before they can be relicensed. The conservation group American Rivers calls the ruling a terrific decision. It hopes other states follow Washington's lead with tough requirements to uphold river quantity and quality to protect the fish runs. Utilities predict a decision could mean higher electric bills and more pollution if other power sources are needed to make up the difference in generating capacity. For Living on Earth, this is Guy Nelson in Seattle.

THOMSON: NASA is taking the battle against litter to a higher level. Literally. The space agency says leftover space junk is damaging satellites and could threaten the safety of human space flights. Several thousand large pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller ones are orbiting the Earth at high speeds. NASA says fragments no bigger than paint chips can damage space shuttle windows and require costly repairs. Don Kessler tracks orbital trash for NASA.

KESSLER: The stupid thing that you would do would be to continue to operate in space like we have in the past. What we need to do in order to control the future orbital debris environment is twofold. One, to eliminate explosions. Second, to get rid of upper stages and payloads at the end of their useful life.

THOMSON: Kessler says NASA's new litter policy may also send space garbage toward the Earth's atmosphere to burn up, or toward a special orbit reserved for space junk. That's this week's environmental news. I'm Peter Thomson.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Virginians Versus Disney

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the Civil War began, many on both sides thought it would be a relatively short and bloodless affair. But those hopes were dashed by a fierce battle in the Virginia countryside just outside Washington. The first Battle of Bull Run gave the split nation its first real taste of the deep suffering that lay ahead. Today, another battle is raging in the area, over a plan by the Disney Corporation to build an American history theme park in the middle of the still rural Virginia Piedmont. The site is ideal for Disney. Along with its Civil War legacy, the area was home to revolutionary patriots Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Few places in America are as rich in history. Supporters of the park say it'll bring badly needed jobs to the region, but critics says they would come at far too high a cost. Thomas Lalley reports.

(Running water)

LALLEY: Little Bull Run courses through a small farm near the town of Haymarket. It's in the heart of the Piedmont: a 75-mile-wide swath of rolling green hills that runs through the middle of Virginia. The surrounding fields like fallow and the turn-of-the-century barn is empty. To a casual observer, the farm is a reminder of the Piedmont's past, but to the Disney Corporation, it's a symbol of the future.

REYNOLDS: We're standing near the entrance to the 100-acre park. It's not clear whether you'll enter into, um, Crossroads USA, a mid-18th century mill town, or whether it might be a more Jeffersonian temple saluting the ideals and principles that have held America together. Our imagineers are just pulling up to the drafting table.

LALLEY: Mary Ann Reynolds is a spokesperson for Disney's America, the Walt Disney Corporation's proposed theme park scheduled to open here in 1998. Walking through the deep mud of former corn fields, Reynolds enthusiastically lays out Disney's vision for the farm. Within 2 decades, 3,000 acres of land will be transformed to accommodate 2,500 new houses, over 1,300 hotel rooms, and 2 million square feet of retail space, on top of the theme park, which is expected to draw 11 million visitors a year. For Disney, this is the ideal location. It's near the lucrative Washington tourist market, and in the middle of the land that fostered the nation.

REYNOLDS: An American history park belongs here in Virginia, where so much of America's history began. Probably Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sloshed through some clay fields like this, too, don't you bet?

LALLEY: But this field and many others like it will disappear with the building of Disney's America. And that has some area residents concerned. Gillman lives down a gravel road near the Disney site. The road runs through thick forests of oak and hickory, broken up by a few small farms. Gillman and her husband came to Haymarket because it was close to his job in suburban Washington, but still very much the country.

GILLMAN: We get a ton of birds. We got bird feeders up front. And we get the geese, and we sit out here quite often, and the geese will fly over. You can hear their wings flapping, they're so low.

LALLEY: The Disney site lies directly in between Gillman's house and the mountains to the West. She worries that light and noise pollution will be a daily nuisance. Gillman and some of her neighbors are trying to block Disney's America.

GILLMAN: The thing that got me worried about this to begin with was the mock air battles, plus the explosions. They're gonna have the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, and I understand there are going to be fireworks every night. So I figure, uh, whereas I don't have any lights now, I'm gonna have Disney's fireworks and their mock air battles.

(Cash register: "Four dollars and 14 cents.")

LALLEY: With a population of 375, Haymarket is the kind of town you're likely to miss driving through it. Its busiest spot may be Gossam's Hardware Store. The counter at Gossam's is plastered with pictures of locals displaying the 6-point buck they shot last season, or the 20-inch bass caught last summer. Gossam's owner, Tim Everett, is a staunch supporter of Disney and of the almost $200 million in infrastructure improvements the state and county government have promised to help make the project happen.

EVERETT: Disney is gonna provide a return. Not only in amenities in the neighborhood, like things that we can go and enjoy, like the recreational activities, but in tax base, tax revenue coming in, jobs created. All types of ancillary businesses that will be opportunities for, you know, businesses around Disney that will spring up. So we're looking at a tremendous return on any investment.

LALLEY: Virginia's investment is expected to reap the state over 12,000 new jobs and just under a billion dollars in tax revenue over the next 30 years. But the Disney project will accelerate the process of change in the Piedmont. Already, strip malls and tract housing have crept into some parts of Prince William County, where Haymarket is located. But critics say the county is not equipped to handle the development boom that Disney's America is expected to trigger.

ELLIOT: Haymarket is the wrong place for Disney's America.

LALLEY: Bob Elliot is the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, the most powerful citizen's group fighting Disney's decision to come to Haymarket. He points to a map of northern Virginia, where large areas of Prince William County are zoned for intense development.

ELLIOT: I think it demonstrates very well how over-planned northern Virginia is. What the general summary [word?] of Virginia have done in response to Disney and in response to the governor is take a step that I think sort of irrevocably starts the national Capitol region into spreading out and becoming another Los Angeles.

LALLEY: Elliot's group encourages denser developments centered around areas that are already urbanized. This would use resources more efficiently and preserve open space. Areas that are increasingly rare and valuable in the national Capitol area. But where critics see sprawl, the Prince William County government sees progress.

BECKER: I sort of feel that it makes a lot more sense to move the industries and the businesses out away from the city, where, closer to where people live.

LALLEY: William Becker is a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Long ago, the Board decided to zone some areas for intense development. Becker says that the Disney project will make Prince William County more financially stable.

BECKER: Disney's just one case. Our people are paying high taxes now, the highest in the state of Virginia. And we would like to lower that. But until we get an industrial base, we can't do that. You can't expect us not to ask for businesses to come in here. So it's a case of what is the best for us?

LALLEY: The county supervisors are likely to rule in favor of Disney this fall. But Disney will still have several hoops to jump through including Federal Clean Air laws. The Washington area routinely fails to meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act, and critics say the additional traffic Disney's America would attract will only make that worse. There are also issues of water supply and wastewater treatment. But Disney appears confident that any environmental issues can be worked out. Disney spokeswoman Mary Ann Reynolds adds that Disney is the best option for development in this part of Virginia.

REYNOLDS: Let's don't kid ourselves. Growth is coming to Western Prince William County, whether it's Disney growth or subdivision growth. We believe Disney's America can be a model in the Washington region for how orderly growth and clean air can happen together.

(Little Bull Run waters flowing)

LALLEY: More than 100 years ago, Little Bull Run was said to run red with the blood of fallen soldiers during 2 great Civil War battles. Now, it could again be the site of a battle that decides the fate of this region. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Haymarket, Virginia.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "When you wish upon a star...")

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should Disney build a theme park in northern Virginia? Give us a call on our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10 each.

(Music up and under: "No request is too extreme...")

Pit Stops for Migrating ShorebirdsThreatened by Growth

LORD: Over the past few weeks I've watched trumpeter swans cruise on the lakes still chunky with rotten ice, then fly off to be replaced by courting redneck grebes.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord.

LORD: I've listened to the mournful cries of sand hill cranes and the two-tone song of a single varied thrush. But nothing marks the advent spring here in coastal Alaska better than the stopping off of huge flocks of migrating shore birds. Sand pipers, dunlins, dowagers, turnstones, these mostly small and mostly brown birds, all legs and long beaks, are unspectacular except in their numbers.

At high tide they congregate along the shoreline, as thick as cobblestones, waiting and resting. As the tide goes out, thousands spread over the exposed mud flats in frenetic activity, plucking tiny clams and worms from the mud, pipping so fiercely the sound is like white noise.

They're hungry, and that's why they're here: to fuel themselves for their final flights to northern breeding grounds. They've wintered as far off as Argentina and have already come a long way, flying up to 250 miles in a day and 60 hours without a rest.

It's no secret that most species of shore birds are declining in numbers due to habitat loss. The loss or degradation of any one site can devastate entire species. As I gloss [word?] the flats of what we call Mud Bay, several children are doing the same, taking part in something called the Shore Bird Sister Schools Project. Schools all along the Pacific Flyway, from San Francisco Bay to the Yukon River Delta, are tracking the bird migrations and sharing information by computer. Students are learning about the importance of wetlands and how habitat losses in a far part of the world can affect the birds they see in their own yards.

The small children this day seem more excited about the seagulls than the shore birds, but that's certainly a start. By appreciating our feathered neighbors at all, they're already ahead of many adults. Our city leaders haven't yet been convinced of the value of designating Mud Bay as a critical habitat area. They can't even agree on banning vehicles from four-wheeling over the mud flats.

Other children are watching the birds through scopes and delighting in a dowager. If they never saw a dowager, never knew its name or its long bill and cinnamon front and the facts of what it eats and where it flies from and to, how could it matter to them if the dowager ceased to exist? Now that they do know its name and habits, I'd like to think the dowager, and maybe even the surf bird, will have a better chance at being here next year, and in ten years, and when these same children are old and gray.

CURWOOD: Writer Nancy Lord is a commentator for Living on Earth. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Whiz Kid Invents New Process for Recycling Plastics

CURWOOD: It's hard to make news about recycling any more, and making news wasn't what Forrest Anderson had in mind when he headed for his chemistry lab a while ago. He just wanted to tackle one of recycling's more vexing problems. How can one turn unsorted plastic trash, the mix of containers and packages we throw away every day, into useful chemicals, without having to separate each kind of plastic beforehand? And Mr. Anderson may have succeeded. That's an attention-getter already, but consider this: Forrest Anderson isn't a researcher with a company or a university. He's a high school senior from Helena, Montana. And his invention of a plastics recycling process won him the top prize in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Competition: a $40,000 college scholarship. To say the least, Forrest Anderson's entry wasn't your ordinary high school science project.

ANDERSON: Essentially, the process that I've designed and developed recycles polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, and polystyrene, as a mixture, and recycles those into oils and gases. The gases in particular can be used as fuels to fuel the process itself, and some of which are petrochemicals, which have use for plastics and other materials.

CURWOOD: Now is this burning? Is this incineration?

ANDERSON: No, this isn't incineration. This is actually decomposition. There's very little oxygen available for these things to actually burn. So rather, they just break down as a result of having so much thermal energy.

CURWOOD: In other words, heat. Anderson says there are no toxic residues, or even solid waste left over from his process.

ANDERSON: Usually you get a carbon char or coke, but that doesn't necessarily have to be thrown away, because by addition of some water vapor, you can actually convert that to what's know as sin gas, or hydrogen and carbon monoxide, both of which have fairly significant energy fuel values.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering why American industry hasn't thought of this before. Why an 18-year-old man from Montana would come up with this as part of a high school science project and not American plastics industry workers.

ANDERSON: Well, I think there is probably a lot of research being done. But thus far, no single process has been developed to the point where it can be applied industrially and at a commercial scale.

CURWOOD: Your idea for the Westinghouse Science Talent Competition is something that you're now seeking a patent for?

ANDERSON: Yeah. But, you know, that wasn't why I did the research. It wasn't for the financial aspects of developing a commercial process or product or anything like that. It was because I wanted the research experience, and I also wanted to address a problem in American society.

CURWOOD: It's been a pretty heady year for Anderson. Along with the Westinghouse prize, he won his state's wrestling crown. He occasionally finds time to go hiking, fishing, and rock climbing, but he says the best part of his senior year has been the time spent with his peers.

ANDERSON: Meeting the students and researchers that have been associated with these competitions and with these universities that I've had a chance to visit. And it's really exciting to think that I'm going to be in this kind of company, you know, in the coming years.

CURWOOD: Forrest Anderson graduates this spring from Helena High School in Helena, Montana. His invention of a process for recycling mixed plastics into oils, gases, and chemical feedstocks, won him this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Competition. He plans to attend Harvard.

Back to top

(Steel drum music up and under)

The Toscanini of Trash

CURWOOD: Caribbean islanders long ago discovered that junk can sound good. They've been turning discarded oil drums into the instruments of steel bands for decades. But they aren't the only ones to make music out of waste.

(Chimes and percussion)

CURWOOD: This is the sound of trash New York style, conducted by a Princeton-educated composer and instrument maker in lower Manhattan. Producer Joe Richman has this profile, part of our series this summer of sound portraits from New York City.

(Traffic sounds)

RICHMAN: In New York City it's not that strange to see someone rummaging through the garbage, but it is a little weird if they bang on the trash first to see if it's worth taking.

LA PLANTE: You've got some kind of a cardboard tube here. Hmm (taps the tube) - the tube's okay but the cap seems to be the wrong shape.

RICHMAN: About once a day Skip La Plante goes foraging around lower Manhattan where he lives. Past the sweat shops in Chinatown, the offices and art galleries of Soho, and the construction sites further East, it's a mecca for good garbage, says La Plante.

LA PLANTE: I want to see what's in this dumpster. Looks like we've got some wood packing crates. Um. You've got some nice sheets of quarter-inch particle board. Um, we could use those as resonators for stuff....

RICHMAN: La Plante is a tall man with a ponytail and a graying beard. Pretty much every time he walks out the door with his backpack, he can find something useful. He says it's sort of like being an urban Bushman.

LA PLANTE: Well, the Bushmen have this great approach to food, where they know that they can eat any of about 100 things, walking around in the desert, and they have no clue as to what they're going to find next. So they just, you know, wherever they go, whatever they find, it's all cool, they know it'll be there.

(Honking horns)

RICHMAN: Skip La Plante studied music composition at Princeton University in the '70s. A year after graduating, he was living on a farm in New Jersey. One day he discovered a barn full of old farm equipment, kitchen appliances and other junk, and he started banging on it. Two decades later, La Plante has about 200 instruments, all stored in his downtown loft, and all made out of trash.

(Percussive music)

RICHMAN: Instruments like the FoJar, four juice jars that are played with an old beach flip flop. There's also a 20-gallon plastic drum that used to be full of air conditioning chemicals. There's a CaFooBa, which stands for Cat Food Can Marimba. The Boweryphones are made from Thunderbird wine bottles. The Styro Cello is an old wire stretched between a broom handle and a beer cooler. And stacked on shelves up to the ceiling are instruments made out of soda cans, broiler pans, no parking signs, cole slaw containers, traffic cones, and a kitchen sink. One of La Plante's most recent experiment is called a Straw Bassoon. It's a yard-long PVC pipe with a funnel on one end, and on the other there's a straw cut like a double reed. By the way, McDonald's, according to La Plante, makes the best straws.

(Music through the straw reed)

LA PLANTE: Anyway. You can hear why I, at this point, tend to let the wind players in the band play the wind instruments.

RICHMAN: Yes. In La Plante's band, straws are considered wind instruments. The group, called Music for Homemade Instruments, was formed 20 years ago. There are currently 7 members. They do concerts at schools, they've toured the US, and their work has been commissioned for a number of theater and dance projects.

LA PLANTE: People come to me when they've got a problem that nobody else can solve. You know, so if like you need music to suggest that you're in a bar in 1939, someplace in Texas, you don't bother me. Because my instruments won't do that comfortably. On the other hand, if you need, like, somebody to write music to suggest that you're on another planet 800 years in the future, and there's like, aliens who are, like, 4 inches long and purple (laughs) a bunch of people, okay well we're in the right ballpark here.

RICHMAN: Making new and different sound in music is the primary reason Skip La Plante does what he does. Of course, there's an environmental message as well. But La Plante is a unique kind of environmentalist. He is the type who loves styrofoam. Everything from coffee cups to big industrial-size styrofoam boxes. La Plante takes one down from the shelf and lays a bunch of short pipes across the top.

(Chimes)

LA PLANTE: And this is the sound of one of those pipes on the rug, for comparison.

RICHMAN: That's great. So styrofoam is actually a great resonator.

LA PLANTE: It's wonderful. Yeah, we live slightly in terror, because as the, uh, sort of the American community, industrial community becomes a little more environmentally aware, styrofoam is one of these bad materials, and people are finding all sorts of ways to package things without using the styrofoam. Which in a sense is great. In another sense it's going to leave us without resonators in a while. So we've got to hoard these things. (Laughs)

RICHMAN: La Plante says that if more people looked at garbage as a resource, there would be less of a garbage problem. Making musical instruments out of styrofoam may not fix the environment, says La Plante, but it doesn't hurt, either.

LA PLANTE: We're not going to save the world with it, 'cause it's still styrofoam and it's still got all that nasty gas in it, and sooner or later it's gonna break down and screw up the ozone some more when that gas gets out. But before it does we can have some fun with it. You know, so I guess all we're doing is adding a layer of, another layer of usefulness to this stuff, before it finally goes to trash.

RICHMAN: Trash is ours, says La Plante, and we should make with it what we can. One thing La Plante and the members of the band Music for Homemade Instruments have produced with their garbage is a tape of original compositions. It's called A Decade of Debris. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our director is Debra Stavro, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. The program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. We also have help from Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Jessika Bella Mura, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Mark Navin, and Doug Haslem. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.

 

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