Tag: Heather Fenyk

LRWP’s Most popular posts of 2019

Many thanks to all our blog contributors in 2019!

We learned so much from authors like Joe Mish and Joe Sapia who share observations of the natural world in our on-going “Voices of the Watershed” series. We are grateful for regular information-sharing from Streamkeepers and civic science volunteers, including writers Margo Persin and Howard Swerdloff. Folks like Rutgers doctoral candidate Kate Douthat teach us about plants and hydrology and stormwater flows through focused blog series. And student interns TaeHo Lee and April Callahan did a great job developing interviews with LRWP Board Members and others active in the watershed.

The following are the most read / viewed web pages on the LRWP website in 2019:

#5 The water world around us we do not see, by Kate Douthat

#4 Elmwood Cemetery BioBlitz, by Howard Swerdloff

#3 LRWP’s Top 10 Environmental Issues, 2019 Edition, by Heather Fenyk

#2 South River’s “Brick Beach”, by Heather Fenyk

#1 Mile Run Clean-up, the Video, by Jessica Dotson

#LookForTheRiver, Jersey Water Works Opening Plenary Speech

On December 13, 2019 LRWP collaborator and coLAB Arts co-producer and Director of Education John Keller delivered the opening plenary to the 2019 Jersey Water Works annual statewide summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ. John talked about the intersection of art, and our work in the watershed. He gave lots of examples of our collaborative effort these past 5 years. With thanks to John for allowing the LRWP to share his words.

Good Morning Everyone,

Uh, oh. I have to be that first person who annoyingly chastises you for being lack luster in your morning greeting. Think of it this way. It is Friday! You are coming to have a great time at this symposium, learn lots of stuff, have some good conversations, have la meal and still be out by 2:30! And as long as you don’t have a boss who is a party pooper it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to go back to the office for just a few measly afternoon hours so that means found time! Maybe you’ll stop by your favorite independent coffee shop and have a nice afternoon latte in your favorite reusable cup. Then go over to the local day-spa maybe get a message or a nice facial (as long as it doesn’t have any microplastics in it), then meet up with some friends or family for a movie afterwards, but you will bring your own refillable BPA free water bottle because you are a little dehydrated from the latte, message, and facial and don’t want to pay $12 for a bottle of water at the theater. Then you will get out of the movie and think to yourself… wow that was a pretty good day.

So, let’s start this over.

Good morning everyone!

My name is John Keller and I have titled this presentation. 5 years of art in 9 minutes.

I am the director of education and outreach for a non-profit arts organization called coLAB Arts. You can find us on all the social media stuff as @colabarts.

I am here to tell you a story. The story is how an arts organization found itself motivated and inspired to facilitate conversations around our watersheds, and our relationship to water.

First, a little background. What is coLAB Arts and how does our mission drive us to collaborate with non-arts based social advocacy organizations, government institutions, and community groups?

Our mission is quite simply an equation. We engaged artists, advocates, and communities to created transformative new art-work. For us transformation must be three things. It must be sustainable, positive, and community focused. We work in areas as diverse as juvenile justice reform, transgender rights, domestic violence prevention, and dignity for our immigrant neighbors.

But this one is about water. So here we go.

In 2015, myself and two coLAB Arts’ board members attended a watershed education workshop with the then recently formed Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). After the workshop we adopted a local stream and found what so many find in our urban areas: a stream in need of some love. We asked ourselves what we ask ourselves whenever engaging with a new advocacy concern:

How does the artist engage in this space?

What are the core issues that the advocacy partners are wrestling with? What are the historic contexts? What are the socio-political barriers to equity, diversity, inclusion, Justice and Access that the arts might help dismantle? Who are the communities not yet at the table? What are the questions not being asked? What are the ways artists can influence and augment research? – quantitative and qualitative data gathering. What are the complex ideas that artists can infuse into the conversation to make advocacy and even infrastructure better?

When LRWP heard these questions. And challenged us with some of their own for us to ponder. It was kismet. We began working together. Two organizations, arts and science. We formed a working group of artists, landscape architects, community organizers, and civic scientists, to wrestle with arts-based interventions to our natural and built environments. Early recognition from the American Architectural Foundation and their Sustainable Cities Design Academy gave us the opportunity generate bold ideas around on how the arts can drive sustainable changes to complex structural challenges.

We centered on a seemingly simple idea to drive the story of the work. It is the idea that the river is both a physical entity in our landscape, but it is also a powerful metaphor in our daily lives. It is all around us. It does not just exist in the physical limitations of the banks of a body of water, but it exists in our storm water systems, in the run-off from our homes, in our sprinklers, our faucets, in our dreams for quality of life, in our stories of migration, and our desperation in times of crisis. We began asking ourselves as well as the artists and communities brought into the work to #LookForTheRiver in all things.

We began work in earnest. Going alongside the LRWP on stream clean ups. Participating in macro invertebrate trainings, touring spaces and landscapes that maybe weren’t the most obvious places of water stewardship. We began engaging professional artists through programs like our National Endowment for the Arts funded residencies where we partner an artist with a non-arts based organization and task each with creating an engaged arts project that facilitates a conversation with community that generates new works of art inspired by some big problem or question that advocacy org is wrestling with. The model of that residency which now has multiple artists with a diverse group of organizations is successful in no small part to LRWP piloting that program our first year. Our Watershed Helping Hands Sculpture Project on display in the lobby is one such example of one of the community based art engagement programs that resulted from that artist residency.

Once the communities have been engaged and you have built a critical mass of participation. You have to think next steps.

At the end of the day we are an arts organization and the greatest way to partner with artists is to provide opportunities for them to create bold artistic gestures.

Our work has been both conceptual and literal.

We have used the process of cleanups, data collection and public access as our points of inspiration to create works that both reuse found materials as well as engage with artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines such as sculptural work, dance, theater, and mixed media.

To integrate both professional arts creation with community arts creation. Recognizing that while not everything can be called great art, great art can come from anywhere. We balance the ethereal of the performative with the substance of created artifacts; both a natural growth from a new communal education on watershed health and quality and the provocation of a call to action.

When this happens a new kind of reality might be possible. Where if we truly look for the river in all of the aspects of our lives. We begin to question why is it absent? And we see our spaces built in essence to do whatever they can to keep the river out. To blot it out from our landscape…

But when you create the potential for new vision we can inspire ourselves, our planners, and political leaders to reintegrate the river into our lives; into our built cities, and our story telling. Accepting the river back becomes our way of solving infrastructure problems. Like a new art and history based greenway connecting public spaces through the heart of an urban area, or an art and green infrastructure concept project which includes a two-story sculpture work that becomes a wayfinding landmark, urban beautification, and a five thousand gallon cistern to keep water run-off from reaching the storm water system in times of flooding.

When empowering communities to create art that allows them to connect with both their environmental and social justice history we can make space to dream about ways in which we can work with our built communities to remember the landscape of our past. And find new ways to interact with it.

The arts are in incredible communicative tool. But the first act of social justice is to listen. Our creations cannot come before we first strive to listen with the intention of learning. Artists and water experts need to engage in this process together. When the artist is involved in the process – not just brought in at the end to slap some paint on a wall, not just asked to develop the PR or marketing strategy, rather allowing the artist to be in response to this listening process.

In 2019 we began an oral history archive which is about capturing those stories. Balancing the narratives. We research and collect the stories perhaps lost, perhaps suppressed, perhaps forgotten, around one very simple idea: Water is everywhere, and water is important to everyone.  And then doing what we do… make are that is in response and helps us all frame a greener future.

On climate risks, hazards containment, and the Lower Raritan’s “Dark Waters”

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

In the opening scene of Mark Ruffalo’s devastating new true-story legal thriller Dark Waters, released this week in New Jersey theaters, we watch as a car travels rural roads to a swimming hole. In the dark of night three teenagers exit the car near a “no trespassing” sign, jump a fence, and dive in. The camera pans to signs marked “containment pond,” where chemical byproducts of Dupont’s manufacturing plants – specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA – are ostensibly “contained”.

The year is 1975. PFOAs are unregulated. Things end badly. We soon learn that PFOA is related to an abundance of health risks. The film traces a decades-long corporate cover-up of these risks, as well as loss of life and tremendous suffering. The film also makes clear how exceedingly difficult it is to contain toxic pollutants.

The issue of historic pollutant containment is the focus of a report released last month by the US Government Accountability Office that identifies the nation’s Superfund sites deemed most “at risk” of climate crises including flooding, coastal inundation, and wildfire. Of the 945 sites on the GAO list, 24 are in our 352-square mile Lower Raritan Watershed. That’s an incredibly disproportionate 4% of the most at-risk toxic sites in the United States. Our almost 900,000 watershed residents don’t have to travel rural roads to encounter pollutant hazards, they are proximate to where we live and work. More info on the GAO report, and a list of these sites, is on the LRWP website.

GAO-identified Superfunds in the Lower Raritan that are at-risk of natural hazards impacts (2019)

Of course the GAO only looks at Nonfederal Superfund sites. Here’s a map of all Known Contaminated Sites (KCS) in the watershed, many more of which are likewise at risk.

Not surprisingly, the concentrated band of sites that runs through the middle of the watershed traces along the Raritan River and feeder waterways. Our challenge will be containment of hazards impacts, particularly tough when stilling ponds and uses are proximate to flooded waters.

One of many Raritan River-adjacent landfills/Superfund sites at-risk of flood impacts
Photo by Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life – taken during a LightHawk flight, April 2019

Remembering Superstorm Sandy prompts us to #lookfortheriver

As we travel through our communities, few of us think about the hidden world of streams and rivers that once flowed across the landscape. In the face of climate change and increased precipitation, real life has shown us that stormwater runoff and flooding have intensified. #lookfortheriver is an outreach campaign to engage New Jersey residents in examining changes made to our urban streams and hydrology over time.

Seven years ago my family was without power and heat following Superstorm Sandy. We spent days off from school and work, charging phones in a local fire station, shopping at A&P in the dark, and mopping up our flooded basement apartment. We mourned with our next door neighbor who lost a brother to generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and with a colleague who lost a neighbor when the storm’s vicious winds downed a tree.

Today we stop to remember. As we do, we think about those for whom Hurricane-related devastation is fresh. The Bahamas is still assessing damage from Hurricane Dorian. Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. And just last month Tropical Storm Imelda dumped 43 inches on the Houston, Texas region, causing wide scale flooding, a near repeat of the intense rainfall seen during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Imelda and Harvey in particular have brought attention to the likelihood that global climate change will increase the frequency of powerful hurricanes and other storms, and not just in Texas. The northeast has already experienced a 71% increase between 1958 and 2012 in rainfall from intense storms. If the amount of rain that saturated Houston during Harvey or Imelda hit Raritan Bay, our Lower Raritan Watershed riverine communities, including Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville and South River, would be completely inundated through a combination of storm surge and overland stormwater flow. Although rainfall amounts akin to Harvey are unlikely in our region, we know we must adapt to a wetter, stormier reality.

Intense rainfall is especially devastating in heavily urbanized areas that are characterized by impervious cover, and by streams that are completely culverted, buried, or otherwise covered up. The impact of “hiding” so many of streams causes serious problems. Communities are alienated from their waterways and historic ecologies, habitats are degraded, water quality is compromised, and stormwater runoff and flooding intensify. In the context of intensified precipitation, healthy, open streams play an important role in stormwater management. Open streams slow and control stormwater surge, and stormwater gets absorbed and gradually released by soil and plants.

On this seventh anniversary of Hurricane Sandy the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP) is rolling out #lookfortheriver, a new campaign designed to inspire care for neglected waterways – our lost or forgotten streams – in the context of climate change, intensified urban flooding and sea level rise. We see #lookfortheriver as a way to build social resilience, and to empower communities, particularly folks in harms way with respect to flooding, to value and restore freshwater ecosystems and the environment as community care and resilience.

#lookfortheriver is a way for ordinary citizens to learn how to adapt and prepare for a wetter, stormier future. It involves training in how to read a topographic map, identify watersheds, and understand basic hydrology. It is designed to support residents and communities as they explore their own local landscapes, and to open up discussion about historic patterns of land management and how we might do better. 

The LRWP will be gradually building a portfolio of #lookfortheriver offerings. To start, in 2020 eligible entities like libraries, historical societies, museums, civic associations, public agencies, senior centers, and other community groups throughout the state of New Jersey can host a #lookfortheriver outreach session through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) Public Scholars Project.

We are excited about this new initiative, and hope you will join us as we look to the future and #lookfortheriver.

Lower Raritan wins 2019 “Golden Toilet” award

Last week our River was “honored” for having the worst performing waters in terms of bacteria levels of any of the civic science monitoring projects in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary. Yes, the Raritan River received the 2019 “Golden Toilet” award from NYC’s The River Project.

Click here to see entire season’s results for all 70+ sites, displayed week by week. Click on the map icons here to see results for specific sites.

IEC Environmental Analyst Jessica Bonamusa models the 2019 “Golden Toilet” award

While facing ignominy is not our preferred approach to public engagement, we do hope this helps bring attention and resources to clean up our River. There is nowhere to go but up.

We and our EARTH Center of Middlesex County partners have a lot of work to do in terms of data analysis, but expect more detailed reporting out in the coming weeks.

It is because of the commitment and dedication of our volunteer monitors that we have the data to start pinpointing, and addressing, problems and sources of pollution. A huge THANKS to them for helping us build this program and clean up our Raritan. And a special thanks to the Interstate Environmental Pollution Control Commission for lab analysis.

The River Project’s annual awards night, LRWP’s Heather Fenyk receiving the “Golden Toilet” on behalf of the Raritan River

South River’s “Brick Beach”

Article and photo by Heather Fenyk

On March 16 the LRWP hosted a clean-up of South River’s Grekoski Park and the adjacent floodplain. Despite the biting wind we had a good turn out, and cleared several dozen bags of trash and plastic from the floodplain, stream, lake bottom, lake’s edge, and wooded areas. While we cleared out hundreds of plastic bottles and dozens of tires, we did not contend with the significant legacy industrial dumping issues at the site, perhaps the most visually striking of which is South River’s “Brick Beach.”

South River’s “Brick Beach”
photo taken during the LRWP’s March 16 clean-up of Grekoski Park

This brick-strewn tidal floodplain is an especially curious aspect of central New Jersey’s industrial legacy. The American Enameled Brick and Tile Company operated at this site from 1893-1934, and many of New York’s brownstones and subways were made from our Lower Raritan clay. My father-in-law’s first job in America was as a brick maker just across the river at the Sayre and Fisher Brick Company.

The American Enameled Brick and Tile Co. was established in 1893 in South River by Julius Steurberg, his son Herbert Steurberg, and Francis Booraem. With offices in New York City, they were major players in New York City’s construction. In June, 1934, the South River plant was destroyed by fire, never to be rebuilt.

The visual experience here is bizarre: hundreds of thousands of 100+ year old bricks “shoring up” the southern embankment of the South River. The walk across this space is likewise disconcerting. It may look like stable ground but, being tidal (photo was taken at low tide) and heavily silted from upstream erosion, the bricks shift significantly beneath your feet.

The South River floodplain is tidal and heavily silted. Photo taken at low tide.

We stumbled across another visually compelling remnant of the the brick industry at this site in the form of an abandoned rail spur. This bit of railway led from from brick manufacture to boats that would travel the short distance along the South River to the Raritan River and across Raritan Bay to New York City.

Neglected rail spur leading from the former American Enameled Brick and Tile Company to boats waiting to ferry bricks to Manhattan.

An MLK Day invitation to grow through service

Martin Luther King Day was established as a National Holiday in 1983. Eleven years later in 1994, Congress added a service component to the holiday. Monday January 21 marks the 25th anniversary of our federally designated National Day of Service, also called the “King Day of Service” or “A Day On, Not a Day Off.”

Through his leadership of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King provided tremendous service to our nation. Despite this, media coverage of the service aspect of Martin Luther King Day celebrations is sparse. Especially rare are stories that highlight impacts of volunteering that go beyond economic valuation and personal benefits.

How can we build on Dr. King’s legacy and celebrate volunteering in ways that strengthen our neighborhoods and nation? We can conceive of service as an expression of citizenship, service as an expression of generosity, and service as the opportunity to experience a felt sense of community.

Citizenship. The pressures of our day-to-day political and economic engagement tend to reduce us to “voters” or “consumers.” Through this process we lose sense of ourselves as citizens, and lose connection to our communities. Volunteering allows us to connect deeply with one another as citizens in the craft of working together for the common good.

Generosity. Non-profits, schools and nursing homes do not need “free labor” or “spare time” as much as they need the generosity of spirit that prompts us to engage as volunteers. In sharing our generosity, we are held to a higher standard: the intention to enhance the true well-being of those to whom our generosity is given.

Community. Volunteering is about a felt sense of community. It is about making connections and building resilience. Connections, resilience – these are especially critical assets in these more trying times.

As we recognize 25 years of celebrating service as a national value, let’s reflect on and commit to grow through the broad benefits of volunteerism. Evolving through service in this way can help strengthen our diverse communities and further protect civil rights and civil liberties.

Heather Fenyk, Ph.D. serves as Board President of the 100% volunteer-run Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership based in New Brunswick, NJ.

LRWP’s Top 10 Environmental Issues, 2019 edition

The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership is often asked to talk about the most pressing environmental issues facing our Central Jersey watershed communities. Here is our “Top 10” list of cross-cutting concerns for 2019. Starting in February we will feature one concern a month on our website, exploring that issue (and potential solutions) in more detail. We invite you to join in the conversation.

  1. Poorly coordinated stormwater management, conducted at municipal (not watershed) scales, means that one community’s flood control efforts can lead to another community’s flooding problems.
  2. Centuries of burying and culverting streams has “disappeared” many waterways, compromising the ability of our landscape to adequately capture and store rain and stormwater runoff.
  3. Perceptions of safety (poor lighting, litter) around riverfront spaces, and poor signage and access to these spaces, deters use and enjoyment of our waterways. If we don’t know our rivers and streams we won’t grow to love them and act to protect them.
  4. Failure of aging water infrastructure (culverts, pipes, inlets and outfalls), an urgent safety issue for all our communities, is exacerbated by an increase in precipitation due to climate change.
  5. Poor control of non-point pollution sources (fertilizers and pesticides from lawns, sediments from development and erosion, oil and grease and road salt from roadways, animal and human waste, dumping of detergents and paints and other chemicals into stormdrains, and litter) results in high chemical levels, bacteria loads and algal blooms in our rivers and streams.
  6. Loss of biodiversity in our watershed, and a reduction in absolute numbers of insects and flora and fauna, reduces the ability of our ecosystem to cope with threats from pollution, climate change and other human activities.
  7. State and regional authorities do not have a clear plan to improve knowledge of the health of the Raritan and its tributaries, and do not model pollutant loads for our watershed.
  8. Recent federal rollbacks of requirements for oil and gas reporting may result in increased methane emissions and open the door to more pipelines that fragment and threaten habitat.
  9. Federal policies that extend the offshore fishing season and increase allowances in catch rates for commercial fishing reduce numbers of anadromous migratory fish in the Raritan, affecting the food chain.
  10. Limited regional cooperation, a “home rule” focus, and lack of collaborative action and capacity building results in a slow pace of restoration and improvements in our watershed, particularly in low income communities and communities of color.
  11. Check with your local Environmental Commission or Green Team for information about specific source impacts and development pressures in your community.

Protecting Darkness

by Heather Fenyk, LRWP President

As we move toward the shortest and darkest day of the year, and as the winter constellations take their places in our night sky, my family seeks out landscapes freed from the trespass of streetlights to check in with Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Gemini, and Canis Major. These forays are times to marvel at the grandness of the universe, and give us pause to reflect on our place in it.

Winter Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere
Image credit: Carolyn Collins Petersen

However, just like our terrestrial landscapes, even our views of the night sky need protecting. Did you know that fully 80% of the American population lives where they cannot see the Milky Way with the naked eye? Light pollution not only compromises our views of darkness and the heavens, it has implications for functioning of life on earth by changing bat and moth behavior, threatening rainforest regrowth, and contributing to the decline of firefly populations across the globe. Many towns around the world are adopting “Dark Sky Initiatives” to remind us that our lands and skies are interconnected, and that like our waterways and our forests, our dark skies need protecting.

It is the season of lights. Our houses and streets are glowing with color. We string the Christmas trees with miniature glowing orbs, set out the diya, and light the candle in the Menorah. The visual display is joyous, festive, welcoming and wonderful. But consider adding a new tradition to your holiday calendar: turn off your lights and go out to gaze at the brilliance of the winter sky.

My family will do just that during our annual visit to Rutgers’ Serin Observatory during “Public Open Nights.” There we observe the night sky through the 20-inch optical telescope. Barring inclement weather, on December 13, 20 and 27 the (unheated) observatory will be open for two hours starting at 8:30 p.m. We are hoping for clear views of M31, Almach, NGC 457, h & χ Persei, η Persei, M45, M42, Betelgeuse, Sirius, Neptune-Mars appulse, Uranus, and the Moon.

As we scan the skies and take in the vastness of things, remember to take stock of your power to affect positive change in the here and now. Even in urban light polluted areas like the Lower Raritan Watershed there are things we can do to save the stars:

  • Light only what you need
  • Use energy efficient bulbs and only as bright as you need
  • Shield lights and direct them down
  • Only use light when you need it
  • Choose warm white light bulbs.

Happy Holidays!

Recognizing the Clean Water Act’s 35th year of Failure

By Heather Fenyk, LRWP President and Founder

We are just a few days shy of July 1, 2018, which marks the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act’s failure to meet it’s “fishable-swimable” goals for our nation’s waters. What does this mean for New Jersey’s waters? The most recent published report (2014) on New Jersey’s water quality tells us that only 16% of our waters fully support general aquatic life. That is, the vast majority of our waterways are not clean enough for drinking water, aquatic life, fish consumption, or even recreation.

The Clean Water Act was about more than the protection of recreation, and fish and wildlife propagation. It was an “interim goal of water quality” intended to lead to “fishable and swimmable” waters by July 1, 1983, and to “the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” But more than a third of a century later the quality of our waterways, especially waters in our urban and historically impacted areas, are far from meeting fishable and swimmable goals.

Why? Because existing laws don’t ban pollution. They allow for polluters and developers to secure permits to pollute. The Clean Water Act is especially weak in terms of regulating the number one source of pollution in our national (and notably our New Jersey) waterways: stormwater.

Urban non-profit environmental organizations, like the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership that I run, go about the daily work of advocating for local watershed management strategies like stormwater utilities and Green Infrastructure to address the water quality and quantity problems in our watersheds. And state-wide collaborative efforts like Jersey Water Works are making tremendous strides to transform New Jersey’s water and wastewater treatment and delivery infrastructure. But without a wholesale shift in thinking around pollution in our waterways, our local waters will never meet the “fishable, swimmable” goals as set out by the CWA, no matter how many Combined Sewers we take off line, or how many rain barrels and rain gardens we install.

What else should be on our radar? How should we be rethinking water pollution policy in New Jersey? On the anniversary of the 35th year of the failure of the CWA to meet it’s goals, we offer you our top 10 ideas for effective change:

  1. Fund major research and development for innovative water treatment and water quality monitoring technologies;
  2. Offer economic incentives to polluters who perform beyond the minimum requirements of the law;
  3. Add public health objectives to our water pollution control laws;
  4. Prioritize clean-up and restoration of polluted waterways, especially in our economically disadvantaged communities;
  5. Establish new target dates for achieving fishable, swimmable waters in New Jersey;
  6. Establish target dates for completely eliminating the discharge of pollutants in our waterways;
  7. Develop real-time monitoring technologies that protect water consumers and recreational users;
  8. Increase enforcement of existing laws;
  9. Establish mandatory monitoring for emerging pollutants including micro-plastics, pharmaceuticals and hormones;
  10. Develop a central repository for information and resource sharing on best management practices in the state.

We welcome comments, additions and suggestions. Email us to share yours: info@lowerraritanwatershed.org

Active CSO Discharge, Perth Amboy – photo credit: Raritan Riverkeeper Bill Schultz

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