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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

June 16, 1995

Air Date: June 16, 1995


Clean Water Act Overhaul / Lisa Wolfington

The House of Representatives has passed a rewrite of the Clean Water Act. Some interpret the new bill to include wetlands protection rollbacks and pollution control easements; others see it differently. The bill is now before the Senate, but some Senators feel the law has been too successful to change drastically, and is in need of only a slight tune-up. Lisa Wolfington has this report. (03:05)

Farm Politics as Presidential Politics

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group. Cook believes the farm bill perspective of 1933 could use some changing in 1995. (06:13)

Suburban Sprawl Solutions / Robin Finesmith

Outside of Chicago, a new development called Prairie Crossing combines new housing and preserved farmland. It is a compromise aimed at saving as much cropland as possible in an area under intense population pressure. Robin Finesmith of Living on Earth’s Midwest bureau reports. (06:59)

Living on Earth Profile Series #8: Wendell Berry / John Gregory

Farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry has written some thirty books. Most of them deal with issues firmly rooted in Berry’s native rural Kentucky. John Gregory of member station KFPL in Kentucky recently spent time with Berry and has this profile. (04:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1995 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
REPORTERS: Francisco Contreras, Marcia Warnock, Lisa Wolfington,
Robin Finesmith, John Gregory
GUEST: Ken Cook

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

A showdown is looming in the US Senate over the Clean Water Act. Many Republicans and Democrats say the law is too hard on farmers and developers, but the powerful chair of the environment committee disagrees.

CHAFFEE: It's resulted in cleaning up our rivers and lakes and streams so that we now have two thirds of them in the country have obtained the goal of fishable and swimmable. And when you've got a good law like that there's no need to make dramatic changes in it.

CURWOOD: Also, a look at farming in America, from Capitol Hill, to suburban Chicago, to the Kentucky countryside and farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry.

BERRY: I've often explained my work as an essayist by saying that I'm a scared man.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Scientists may have discovered just how the pesticide DDT could lead to male genital defects and lowered sperm counts. A study of rats found that DDE, a chemical produced when the body breaks down DDT, serves as an anti-androgen in the body, blocking the effects of male hormones. This stunts male sexual development. EPA biologist William Kelce, author of the study published in the journal Nature, says this effect from DDT could explain a rise in testicular cancer and the possible decline in sperm count in human males over the past 50 years.

Once again, the US-Mexico border is the site of an unusually large number of babies born with severe brain defects. Area hospitals report the birth defects are concentrated downstream from industrial plants on the Rio Grande river. Francisco Contreras of Latino USA reports.

CONTRERAS: The Texas Department of Health says 6 babies near the Eagle Pass area, southwest of San Antonio, were born with no brains or only partial brains, a medical condition known as anencephaly. Babies with anencephaly are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Two other babies were born with a related neural tube defect known as spina bifida, a condition that is treatable. Medical researchers say the abnormally high number occurred along the Mexican border between December and March. They're examining a range of possible causes, from a deficiency in folic acid to toxic waste exposure. The affected area is downstream from numerous factory assembly plants, which have been accused of dumping waste into the Rio Grande. Whatever the cause, doctors at the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta say this is not the first time such an unusually high number of cases has occurred on the border. Between 1989 and '91, 30 babies were diagnosed with severe brain defects in the area near Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. That's 300 miles down the Rio Grande from the Eagle Pass area. For Living on Earth, I'm Francisco Contreras in Austin, Texas.

NUNLEY: Some NASA employees are still suffering from chronic neurological disorders after an accidental exposure to rocket fuel at Houston's Johnson Space Center more than 6 months ago. Neurologist Alan Hirsch studied 55 of the 200 workers exposed to nitrogen tetraoxide in April of last year. He says they still suffer from short-term memory loss, learning disabilities, impotence, sensory disorders, and radical mood swings. And he expects all of those symptoms to worsen. The workers were exposed to the gas when a valve malfunctioned during testing. Hirsch says no warning sirens were sounded when the cloud of toxic gas enveloped 20 buildings at the space center. NASA has since formed an emergency response team to deal with such disasters and relocated all future tests to a less populated site near White Sands, New Mexico.

South Carolina's legislature has approved reopening the Barnwell Low Level Nuclear Waste Dump to every state in the union except North Carolina. The move is a great relief to power plants, hospitals, and laboratories, which had run out of places to store the waste. From WSCI in Charleston, Marcia Warnock reports.

WARNOCK: Governor David Bease asked the legislature to reopen the Barnwell County Dump in southwestern South Carolina to help pay for education in the state, predicting $137 million a year in disposal fees. He also cited the need to ease the unsafe conditions of containing nuclear waste in rusty barrels and storing it in closets and outbuildings. North Carolina was barred from using the dump because it has lagged in constructing a landfill of its own. Opening the landfill will ease pressure on the nation's hospitals, laboratories, and nuclear power plants, which desperately need a site to dispose of equipment used in nuclear medicine and used filters from power plants. As a low-level dump, Barnwell can accept anything except the more radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods.
For Living on Earth, I'm Marcia Warnock in Charleston, South Carolina.

NUNLEY: The world's supply of grain is expected to drop to its lowest level in modern times by next year. That's according to a World Watch Institute report which warns that food prices are expected to rise in response to the grain shortfall. Lester Brown of World Watch predicts that by the middle of 1996, there will be only enough grain stockpiled to feed the world for 53 days. Brown adds that when grain supplies drop below the 60-day mark, food prices can increase rapidly. When grain reserves dropped to their previous low of 55 days in 1973, grain prices doubled. The US Department of Agriculture's June crop report confirmed the World Watch estimates. Brown says rebuilding grain stocks will be more difficult than it was in the 1970s because of huge population gains worldwide and a scarcity of croplands and water.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Clean Water Act Overhaul

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the US Senate's move in the battle over the Clean Water Act, one of the major laws safeguarding the nation's health and environment. Earlier this spring, the House approved a radical overhaul, to the cheers of supporters who say municipalities, farmers, and industry need more leeway to meet clean water standards. Opponents, led in the Senate by Environment Committee Chair John Chafee of Rhode Island, say they don't think the Clean Water Act is broken, and they're in no hurry to fix it. But as Lisa Wolfington reports from Washington, a new compromise bill introduced by Democratic Senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana has picked up important backers in both parties and both houses, and may force Senator Chafee to compromise.

WOLFINGTON: The new Senate bill retains parts of the House measure environmentalists object to most strenuously: rolling back wetlands protections and easing pollution controls. But J. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat who drafted the measure, has dropped the bill's budget busting takings provision. That would have required the federal government to compensate landowners when regulation changed the value of their property. Johnston's bill has met with the approval of representative Jimmy Hayes, a Democrat also from Louisiana who drafted the House bill. Hayes thinks it will boost the legislation's chances of passing.

HAYES: Well, you have Senator Dole, and you have Trent Blott, who are co-sponsors of what is very close to a companion bill. They do like it. Perhaps America ought to have it put to a vote instead of one person in one committee blocking it.

WOLFINGTON: In both houses, it's been Democrats who introduced the legislation to reform the Act: in effect, carrying water for Conservative Republicans. And even though Hayes's bill passed the House, it did not win approval of everyone in the Republican leadership. New York Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, Chair of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, says the new version of the Clean Water Bill is a retreat from more than 2 decades of remarkable progress in cleaning up the nation's waterways and protecting its wetlands.

BOEHLERT: It just, in my estimation, moves in the wrong direction. The good news is this: we had 185 votes for my position in the house, which strengthens the hand of my ally, Senator John Chafee in the Senate. And if he is not successful in fashioning something that's better than the House bill, then the President can veto it knowing that that veto will be sustained.

WOLFINGTON: In the Senate, Rhode Island's John Chafee is standing firm in his commitment to the Clean Water Act, and applauded President Clinton's recent vow to veto any major changes to it.

CHAFEE: First I want to say the existing law is a pretty good law. It's served this country well. It's resulted in cleaning up our rivers and lakes and streams so that we now have two-thirds of them in the country have obtained the goal of fishable and swimmable. And when you've got a good law like that there's no need to make dramatic changes in it.

WOLFINGTON: Chafee insists that only minor adjustments are needed. He has put the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act at the top of his legislative agenda. But as more and more powerful conservative senators line up behind the new bill, it may become harder for Chafee not to take some action on it. For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Wolfington in Washington.

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(Music up and under)

Farm Politics as Presidential Politics

CURWOOD: In the depths of the depression in 1933, Congress adopted a Federal Farm Program. And every 5 years or so since, the complex maze of subsidies, price supports and incentives has been readjusted. The program has boosted crops and kept food prices low for consumers. But critics say its benefits have come at a high cost to taxpayers and the environment. Prime examples: government subsidies for tobacco, which is hazardous to health. And sugar production, which often damages the environment. With Congress in a budget-cutting mood, many conservatives and environmental advocates alike say this year's farm bill ought to be able to save both money and the environment by cutting subsidies for harmful farming practices. But the farm program is deeply rooted in our political culture and thus difficult to change. I spoke with Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based think tank, about the politics and priorities of agricultural policy.

COOK: It's to help family farmers, provide income stability for them. It's to stabilize food supplies and food prices for consumers. It is also to conserve natural resources, particularly soil resources and water resources, to help farmers with conservation goals. And then really, finally, it's to help farmers who are making a transition out of agriculture.

CURWOOD: These seem like laudable goals. Would you agree?

COOK: They're very laudable goals. The problem has been in the implementation of the programs, the design of the programs. They've not really been very helpful in either respect.

CURWOOD: Let me get this clear. You think subsidies in general are a bad idea? Or we have simply misapplied subsidies to farmers in this country?

COOK: Well we have a problem with subsidies, because we think that they're still being driven by the objectives of 1933, and it's 1995. We really should be investing in a different set of things now in rural America. We should, I think, be investing in agriculture, but primarily in research and making agriculture more sustainable. I think we should target assistance not to those who own the most land but primarily to farmers who are in economic need.

CURWOOD: How would you change these programs to continue protecting the family farmer, to continue having a safety net, and yet make the reforms that you say need to be made?

COOK: One direction to go is to phase out all of the programs except the loans and cut out payments to the larger producers. Whether we're providing family-level assistance to family farms instead of corporate-level assistance to agribusinesses. With the savings we would get from that, we would have some capability, it seems to me, to invest in wetlands restoration, a very controversial issue in rural America now, and among environmentalists agriculture still accounts for most of the loss of wetlands in this country. Provide an incentive payment to restore that land and make an easement payment for the long term, to take the land out of production. We need to help farmers make an adjustment to cut back on their use of pesticides. Shifting money out of commodity programs and into conservation program, I think makes sense. In some cases, the same farmers would be getting the payments, but they'd be providing a different kind of service to society in return. They might be setting aside land for wildlife habitat. I think that there would in fact, instead of being criticism of current farm programs, this new sort of greener farm program would attract tremendous public support.

CURWOOD: Are there bills to do this on Capitol Hill right now?

COOK: Well, I would interpret the leading bill in this area as probably the one that was introduced a few weeks ago by Senator Lugar, who's Chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

CURWOOD: With his colleague from Vermont as well.

COOK: With his colleague, Democrat Pat Leahy from Vermont, who used to be the Chairman of the Committee. It maintains a very significant conservation component to the agricultural budget at a time when that budget overall is shrinking. And so you end up with, I think, a more up to date investment package that taxpayers, I think, will like.

CURWOOD: Are there the votes to pass this legislation in the Senate, in your view?

COOK: It's really hard to say. This, the farm programs make for really fascinating politics. You obviously have Senator Dole, not only the majority leader, not only from Kansas, but obviously running for the Presidency. For him farm programs are just vitally essential.

CURWOOD: Yeah, how much are wheat subsidies worth to the state of Kansas?

COOK: Well, we estimate that over the past 10 years alone we have probably provided upwards of $7 billion in direct payments to the state of Kansas. If you wanted to put that in perspective, if taxpayers had invested that money in Kansas farm land, we could have bought 37% of all farm land in the state of Kansas. We've got an early primary state in Iowa, so farm politics are presidential politics as they've rarely been in '96. That's going to be a big factor. So is, in the House, the simple fact that in many cases, when you look at the victories that the Republicans won in November, they were victories in rural districts, farm districts, that had been held by Democrats. Those changes House Republicans are trying to figure out what they can hold onto legislatively in terms of their priorities for cutting the budget and getting the government out of people's business. Those priorities run at odds with agriculture policy in these newly held Republican seats and so you have a real conflict in the Republican party. It's not clear which way they're going to go, and it's very much up in the air. The question is, is Congress going to be creative in this farm bill, or are they going to do business as usual?

CURWOOD: All right. I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

COOK: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Ken Cook is President of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC.

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(Music up and under)

Suburban Sprawl Solutions

CURWOOD: As more and more people migrate out from the cities into the suburbs, what was once prime farmland becomes subdivision. This is a story that is told in many places around the world, and today we take you to the heartland of the United States, in northern Illinois where one community is trying to find a new way of dealing with suburban sprawl. As part of our month-long series on challenges for the world's food supply, Robin Finesmith of Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau at WCPN recently visited Prairie Crossing. It's a new development that's trying to save some of the Chicago area's vanishing croplands.

(Shop sounds)

FINESMITH: Dawn and Scott Peterson grow corn and soybeans on about 1,000 acres of rented land spread throughout Lake County, Illinois. It's an area 50 miles north of Chicago, closer to Wisconsin than the downtown Loop. But it's still part of what's called "Chicagoland," and new developments are sprouting up all the time, surrounding farmsteads like this one.

(A child speaking, corn spilling)

FINESMITH: It's been too wet to work the fields this week, so Dawn Peterson spends this morning fixing machinery and taking care of 3 beef steer she's helping her daughter to raise. When she is in the fields, Peterson says she feels the city intruding.

D. PETERSON: We have people going out in the fields after we plant them. They ruin the corn, they ruin the beans, they make paths out there with their minibikes. At some point people move into houses that are right next to the farms. They really don't know what to expect from the farms. And there are some times when we can farm all night long. And they don't like that a whole lot because we create dust and we create noise and we get complaints and we've even had people send out the cops on us to stop us from farming.

FINESMITH: The Petersons are among a dwindling number of families still farming in Lake County on what many call some of the most productive land in the country. Piece by piece, crops and tractors are losing ground to shopping malls and new houses. In an effort to try to save some of what's left, the township of Grays Lake and a group of builders have worked out a new approach to development that combines new homes and farm land.

(Construction machinery)

FINESMITH: To the untrained eye, Prairie Crossing looks just like another new subdivision, where the first of 300 new homes in the style of classic Midwest farm houses are being built on what was 600 acres of farm land. But it's actually an unusual arrangement. Instead of being spread out over the entire parcel, all the houses are clustered together, almost like a village, on just 20% of the land. The remaining 80% is being left open, leaving some room for the Petersons and another family to keep farming.

(Saws cutting wood)

FINESMITH: Carol Sonnenschein's new house is almost finished. She and her husband will be moving here from a nearby suburb later this summer.

SONNENSCHEIN: If you want 5 acres, if you want to look at your window and see land that belongs to you, all by yourself, then this is probably not the place. But if you want to look out and see hundreds of acres that belong to you and everybody else, then this is a good place to buy.

FINESMITH: The nearly 500 acres of undeveloped land will be owned in common by Sonnenscheine and other Prairie Crossing homeowners. And 150 acres of it will be rented to the Petersons, who will continue to grow corn and soybeans on it. The idea of linking community-owned open space with a new cluster development makes sense to Carol Sonnenschein, who's a sociologist and a city planner by trade.

SONNENSCHEIN: It's a different way of looking at real estate. Just in terms of a regional, what's good for the region, this kind of development is better, it's more efficient, and it preserves farmland.

FINESMITH: Not all of the project's open space will be farmland. Some will be landscaped as prairie, meadow, or wetlands. Prairie Crossing is meant to attract environmentally conscious buyers. Along with the open space around them, the houses themselves have a number of eco-friendly features, including built-in recycling bins and lots of energy efficient windows. There's also a large community-supported garden on the property. Carol Sonnenschein says the big draw for her was the marsh outside her window. She says she's always wanted to hear frogs at night. But she's also excited about being part of a new model of suburban development.

SONNENSCHEIN: Some people have told me that there's no way to stop this, that market forces are so strong that you cannot preserve farm land in this area. People want to live on 5-acre estates and that's what developers develop. But I say, if you can have a prototype like this development, and you can make a profit, then you can say to municipalities it's possible. But you need a model.

FINESMITH: Sonnenschein's sentiments echo those of a number of planners in the area who've also been searching for ways to accommodate growth while preserving some of the region's once rural character. Phil Peters heads the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission. He says he likes the idea of using open space and active farm land as a marketing tool, but he's also cautious. Projects like Prairie Crossing could backfire by driving up property values and forcing more farmers off the land.

PETERS: I think it really would be a question of where it was located. I mean I would not want to move a development like this well out beyond the boundary of where current urban development occurs, because I think it could trigger other development prematurely in an area like that. In this instance, it's well within the area that's developing, so I don't think it's hastening any conversion from agriculture to urban by any means.

FINESMITH: Those who study farmland loss say there's a lot at stake here. Even though cropland disappears acre by acre on the urban fringe, over time it adds up to a tremendous amount of land permanently taken out of production. And that will affect the nation's food supply, according to Ralph Grossi, President of the American Farm Land Trust.

GROSSI: A very high percentage of our fruits and vegetables, 86%, are grown around metropolitan areas under the influence of urban pressure. So it's in that area that we'll first start to see the impacts of urban
sprawl on supplies, quality, and freshness.

FINESMITH: Farm advocates like Ralph Grossi say what's needed most are stronger Federal laws encouraging farmland preservation and better regional planning. Even so, planners hope projects like Prairie Crossing will encourage people to think about their relationship to the land in new ways. For farmer Dawn Peterson, Prairie Crossing is a mixed blessing. Even though she and her husband have only been renting these 600 acres, they've become deeply attached to the land. This development will allow her family to keep farming some of it, but she's sorry that the only way to save a little was to give up a lot.

D. PETERSON: I think they're doing a great thing. But the whole Prairie Crossing is being built on prime farm ground. And I understand what they're doing and everything, but that was a hard hit on us. It's still
hard to see that all go.

FINESMITH: For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Greyslake, Illinois.

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(Music up and under)

Living on Earth Profile Series #8: Wendell Berry

CURWOOD: For more than 25 years, Wendell Berry has farmed a small piece of river bottom in his native Henry County, Kentucky. Along with tobacco, sheep, and vegetables, Berry has also cultivated a garden of literature: poetry, short stories, novels, and essays about the people and the land around him and the issues that deeply concern him, from racism and international trade to sustainable agriculture. As part of our continuing series on 25 intriguing environmental personalities, John Gregory produced this profile of Wendell Berry.

(People singing to guitar)

GREGORY: There's something fitting about seeing Wendell Berry in a church beneath a stained glass window. His long, lean body folded into a chair, as his knees bounce in time to a song about gardening.

(Singing continues and finishes)

GREGORY: At 60 years old, Berry makes few appearances these days and gives even fewer interviews. He's all talked out, he says. But for the crowd of about 100 faithful gathered at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, Berry gives a speech that is equal parts lecture, conversation, and sermon.

BERRY: I've often explained my work as an essayist by saying that I'm a scared man. And I think I really have mainly written in, as a way of dealing with my own fears.

GREGORY: This night Berry says he is troubled by the industrial development along a favorite stretch of country road. And the reckless cutting of trees in southeastern Kentucky. These are extensions of a theme that Berry has written about for years.

CLAY: He fears that people aren't going to listen, and that we're going to destroy the Earth.

GREGORY: Pam Clay is the director of the Kentucky Organic Growers. The project is based on one of Wendell Berry's basic philosophies in which small family farms grow food for their neighbors, not for people thousands of miles away. Berry says this helps strengthen their communities and makes them more self-sufficient. Clay says Berry writes out of a sense of responsibility to share his insights.

CLAY: There's a scripture that "Where much light is given, much is required." And Wendell really does have an understanding that comes to him before it reaches the rest of us.

GREGORY: Berry makes his home in a narrow river valley of north central Kentucky, near where his family has lived for generations. It's populated by people much like the characters in Berry's fiction: humble, hardworking farmers bound, sometimes stubbornly so, to their agricultural traditions. Wes Jackson, a writer and the founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is a long-time friend of Wendell Berry.

JACKSON: Wendell was grounded in community life. And he saw the decency that was inherent in that way of life, and he saw it disappearing. And he's a man of loyalties.

GREGORY: So loyal that in the mid 1960s Berry returned to Kentucky after studying at Stanford University, traveling to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and teaching at New York University. He bought some land, and with his wife Tanya began farming.

JACKSON: What I think is extraordinary is that we find somebody that is as gifted as he is, intellectually, that puts himself right into the problem. And throws his elbows out and insists on working at it right from the inside.

GREGORY: The titles of some of Berry's 30 books reflect the issues he's tackled: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, The Gift of Good Land, Fidelity, What Are People For?, and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Berry says he's accepted the fact that he may be unable to get people to change.

BERRY: I think you've got to be ready to pounce on whatever success comes your way and trust that that process will accumulate force and intelligence and allegiance and go on. If it doesn't, then I'm ready for that, too.

GREGORY: Berry's ideas have been criticized as simplistic, antiquated, and utopian. He's also been heralded as the prophetic American voice. Pam Clay describes Berry as a painfully shy man who is loyal to his friends and enjoys a good laugh.

CLAY: And it's not that Wendell is an idol and we need to all do what Wendell does. We all need to be thoughtful about how we meet our basic fundamental needs. How am I going to feed myself? How am I going to move around in this community? That's what Wendell's been saying.

GREGORY: For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Louisville, Kentucky.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Special thanks to member station WFPL in Louisville. Our production team includes Peter Thomson, Deborah Stavro, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Special thanks to Alan Maddis and Larry Bouthiellier. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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