Trump administration ends EPA clean air policy opposed by fossil fuel companies

The Trump administration announced Thursday it is doing away with a decades-old air emissions policy opposed by fossil fuel companies, a move that environmental groups say will result in more pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was withdrawing the “once-in always-in” policy under the Clean Air Act, which dictated how major sources of hazardous air pollutants are regulated.

Under the EPA’s new interpretation, such “major sources” as coal-fired power plants can be reclassified as “area sources” when their emissions fall below mandated limits, subjecting them to differing standards.

Though formal notice of the reversal has not yet been filed, EPA said the policy it has followed since 1995 relied on an incorrect interpretation of the landmark anti-pollution law.

“This guidance is based on a plain language reading of the statute that is in line with EPA’s guidance for other provisions of the Clean Air Act,” said Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “It will reduce regulatory burden for industries and the states, while continuing to ensure stringent and effective controls on hazardous air pollutants.”

Prior to his confirmation by the GOP-dominated Senate in November, Wehrum worked as a lawyer representing fossil fuel and chemical companies. The American Petroleum Institute was among the industry groups that had called for the longstanding policy to be scraped.

The Clean Air Act defines a “major source” as one that has the potential to emit 10 tons or more per year of any hazardous air pollutant, or 25 tons per year of any combination of hazardous air pollutants. For more than 20 years, EPA’s “once-in always-in” required major sources to remain subject to stricter control standards, even if they took steps to reduce their pollution below the threshold.

Republicans quickly cheered the move by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, especially those from states that produce oil, gas and coal.

“The EPA’s decision today is consistent with President Trump’s agenda to keep America’s air clean and our economy growing,” said Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming. “Withdrawal of this policy means manufacturers, oil and gas operations, and other types of industrial facilities will have greater incentive to reduce emissions.”

Environmentalists predicted the change would drastically weaken limits on toxic heavy metals emitted from power-plant smokestacks.

“This is among the most dangerous actions that the Trump EPA has taken yet against public health,” said John Walke, the director for clean air issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Rolling back longstanding protections to allow the greatest increase in hazardous air pollutants in our nation’s history is unconscionable.”

John Coequyt, who leads climate policy initiatives for the Sierra Club, said the move will lead directly to dirtier air and more deaths.

“Trump and Pruitt are essentially creating a massive loophole that will result in huge amounts of toxic mercury, arsenic, and lead being poured into the air we breathe, meaning this change is a threat to anyone who breathes and a benefit only to dangerous corporate polluters,” Coequyt said.

[CBS News]

Trump moves to weaken black lung protections

President Donald Trump is considering weakening a regulation intended to protect the health of one of the demographics he has often claimed to care most about — America’s coal miners.

A notice labeled “Regulatory Reform of Existing Standards and Regulations; Retrospective Study of Respirable Coal Mine Dust Rule” was published on Thursday by the White House for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The stated purpose of the reevaluation would be to determine how a 2014 rule passed under President Barack Obama regulating coal miners’ exposure to coal dust “could be improved or made more effective or less burdensome.”

When the rule was first implemented, it utilized new technologies and increased sampling in mines so that workers would have real-time information about dust levels. This would in turn allow both the miners and operators to minimize the chances that workers would be overexposed to coal dust, which has caused an epidemic of black lung disease among coal miners.

In spite of a 1969 law that increased coal mine safety requirements, more than 76,000 coal miners throughout America died of black lung disease between 1968 and 2014. Many of those deaths occurred among coal miners whose entire mining careers took place after the 1969 law had taken effect.

In response to the announcement that the coal dust rule would be reevaluated, the National Mining Association released a statement saying, “While we’ve not had any discussions with the agency regarding the retrospective study, we think it might shed valuable information on operation of the rule since its promulgation and ways it might be improved to provide further protection for miners while eliminating unnecessary implementation requirements for operators.”

Meanwhile a spokesman for mining company Murray Energy — whose owner, Bob Murray, was a major Trump backer in the 2016 election — released a statement saying that it is “pleased that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is reexamining the Obama administration’s Respirable Dust Rule, which fails to protect coal miners in any way.”

Although coal mining has been on the decline in Appalachia over the past few years, that isn’t as a result of Trump’s policies. Part of that is something Trump can’t control. And part of it is something Trump doesn’t want to control. The chief struggle facing coal miners is that natural gas, solar and wind power can outcompete coal due to their low cost and abundance. Making matters worse for coal miners themselves, the coal mining jobs are often the best-paying ones in their area, and job retraining programs have a spotty track record of actually helping individuals who use them.

This latest policy undermines Trump’s longstanding claim to be an ally of coal miners, which he bragged about when he pulled out of the Paris climate accord. “I happen to love the coal miners,” Trump proclaimed at the time.

Trump may have let his true feelings about coal miners be known during a Playboy interview in 1990, however.

“The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” Trump told Playboy. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.'”

[Salon]

Trump repeals consumer arbitration rule, wins banker praise

President Trump on Wednesday signed a repeal of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rule on forced arbitration, winning praise from banking and business groups.

Trump approved the resolution to repeal the CFPB rule, meant to prevent banks and credit card companies from blocking customers from joining class-action lawsuits against them, in a private Oval Office signing.

The House passed a resolution to repeal the rule in July, which passed the Senate two weeks ago.

Trump was joined by the heads of several banking lobbying groups that opposed the CFPB rule, contending it would kill cheaper options for consumers while enriching trial lawyers.

The chiefs of the Consumer Bankers Association, Independent Community Bankers of America, National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions and several other groups attended the signing.

The arbitration rule repeal is a major victory for finance and business groups, which promised to fight the measure soon after it was released in July. Critics say the rule went too far in restricting arbitration based on a CFPB study they consider flawed and misleading.

“Arbitration is a well-established and tested process that offers better results for consumers and helps avoid frivolous class-action suits,” said Independent Community Bankers of America President Camden Fine.

“[Independent Community Bankers of America] thanks the president for swiftly signing this measure into law because it preserves community banks’ contractual right to pursue fair and timely resolution through arbitration and avoid prohibitively expensive and protracted litigation.”

Richard Hunt, Consumer Bankers Association president and CEO, said the arbitration rule “was about protecting trial lawyers and their wallets,” praising Trump and Congress for ensuring “consumers have the necessary tools to receive relief without going through drawn-out class action proceedings.”

Dan Berger, National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions president and CEO, said the group “was honored to have been invited to the White House to watch the undoing of a rule that likely would have had negative effects on the credit union industry.”

Democrats and the CFPB criticized Trump, claiming he sides with banks over consumers. They’ve long called for action on forced arbitration, which they say denies fraud victims basic legal rights, and the CFPB rule was the most ambitious effort to regulate the practice.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray said “in signing this resolution, the president signed away consumers’ right to their day in court.”

“This action tips the scales of justice in favor of Wall Street banks less than 10 years after they caused the financial crisis,” said Cordray, who asked Trump on Monday to spare the rule. “By blocking our arbitration rule, this action makes it nearly impossible for ordinary people to stand up for themselves against corporate giants like Wells Fargo and Equifax.

“Now more than ever, it is critical that the Consumer Bureau remain a strong check on financial companies,” he said.

Better Markets, a nonprofit aligned with the CFPB, said, “Today, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have made it clear, they are on the side of Wall Street banks not Main Street consumers.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) called Trump’s repeal “a disgrace,” tweeting that “If [Trump] cared about working people he’d veto this swampy legislation.”

[The Hill]

Interior Dept. Halts Study Into Appalachian Mining Technique’s Likely Health Hazards

The Trump administration has halted a study of the health effects of a common mining technique in Appalachia, which is believed to deposit waste containing toxic minerals in ground waters.

A letter from the Interior Department directed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to “cease all work” on a study of the potential health risks of mountaintop removal mining for people living near surface coal mine sites in central Appalachia. The Interior Department acknowledged in a statement that it had “put on hold” $1 million in funding for the two-year project as part of a review of its grants, which is focused on “responsibly using taxpayer dollars.”
“The Trump Administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out every year by the Department of the Interior,” the statement said.

Still, the National Academies — a nongovernmental institution that researches and advises the government on science and technology — plans to move forward with part of the research, and will hold previously scheduled public meetings this week in Kentucky, the Academies said in a statement.

Political reaction was swift to the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the study of “the potential relationship between increased health risks and living in proximity to sites that have been or are being mined or reclaimed for surface coal deposits,” which began last year and was expected to take two years to complete.

“Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems,” Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking democrat on the House Committee of Natural Resources, said in a statement.
“Clearly this administration and the Republican Party are trying to stop the National Academy of Sciences from uncovering exactly how harmful this practice is,” Grijalva said.

“It’s infuriating that Trump would halt this study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, research that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years,” said Bill Price, Senior Appalachia Organizing Representative for environmental advocacy group Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

[CNN]

EPA Dismisses Five Scientists from Major Review Board

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dismissed at least five academic members of one of its scientific review boards and may replace them with representatives from industries the EPA regulates, according to The New York Times.

A spokesperson for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Pruitt is considering replacing the five scientists with representatives of industries whose pollution the EPA polices.

“The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” spokesperson J.P. Freire told The Times.

It’s the latest in a string of controversial moves by the agency in recent weeks. The agency has removed several pages about climate change from its website and has proposed shuttering a regional office that oversees environmental regulation in several states.

Trump has also signed several executive orders that impact the environment, including rolling back former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies and expanding offshore drilling.

(h/t The Hill)

Trump Unwinding Michelle Obama’s School Lunch Program Rules

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took steps Monday to roll back healthy school lunch standards promoted by former first lady Michelle Obama in one of his first regulatory acts.

In an interim final rule, aimed at giving schools more flexibility, Perdue and his department are postponing further sodium reductions for at least three years and allowing schools to serve non-whole grain rich products occasionally as well as 1 percent flavored milk.

The rule allows states to exempt schools in the 2017-2018 school year from having to replace all their grains with whole-grain rich products if they are having a hard time meeting the standard.

USDA said it will take “all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.”

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a statement.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”

Sodium levels in school lunches now must average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools; 1,360 mg in middle schools; and 1,420 mg in high school.

Before Perdue’s rule, schools were expected to reduce sodium even further to average less than 935 milligrams in elementary schools, 1035 milligrams in middle school lunches and 1,080 in high school lunches by the week by July 1, 2017.

Further reductions were set to take effect by July 1, 2022.

Perdue made the announcement Monday with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who has long been working to ease the standards.

“We worked really hard the last two years to provide flexibility, but after unanimously passing a bipartisan bill out of Committee, our effort stalled,” he said in a statement.

“The policies that Secretary Perdue has declared here today will provide the flexibility to ensure that schools are able to serve nutritious meals that children will actually eat. Because that is really what these programs are about: serving meals to hungry children so that they can learn and grow.”

The School Nutrition Association, which represents nutrition directors at schools across the country, was quick to praise Perdue. The group has been lobbying Congress for more flexibility in what the have called “overly prescriptive regulations.”

SNA claims less kids are buying lunch because they no longer like the food and schools are being forced to spend more money on lunches that largely end up in trash.

The former standards required all grains, including croutons and the breading on chicken patties, to be whole grain rich.

“School Nutrition Association is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support of school meal programs in providing flexibility to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students,” the group’s CEO Patricia Montague said in a statement.

“School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”

Health groups, meanwhile, claim the standards are working and that 99 percent of schools are in compliance.

“Improving children’s health should be a top priority for the USDA, and serving more nutritious foods in schools is a clear-cut way to accomplish this goal,” the American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement Friday ahead of USDA’s action.

(h/t The Hill)

Dow Chemical Donates $1 Million to Trump, Asks Administration to Ignore Pesticide Study

Chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion are a group of pesticides that are a big money-maker for Dow Chemical, with the company selling approximately 5 million pounds of chlorpyrifos in the U.S. each year, according to the Associated Press. Dow Chemical, however, has a small problem on its hands, and it’s not the fact that the pesticide was “originally derived from a nerve gas developed by Nazi Germany,” per the AP, though that’s certainly not great for marketing materials. In this case, it’s the fact that studies by federal scientists have found that chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion are harmful to almost 1,800 “critically threatened or endangered species.” Historically, groups like the Environmental Protection Agency would want to avoid killing frogs, fish, birds, mammals, and plants, which is why the regulator and two others that it works with to enforce the Endangered Species Act are reportedly “close to issuing findings expected to result in new limits on how and where the highly toxic pesticides can be used,” the AP reports.

Luckily for Dow, the E.P.A. is now run by climate-change skeptic and general enemy of living things Scott Pruitt, who last month said he would reverse “an Obama-era effort to bar the use of Dow’s chlorpyrifos pesticide on food after recent peer-reviewed studies found that even tiny levels of exposure could hinder the development of children’s brains.” Plus, Dow Chemical C.E.O. Andrew Liveris is good buddies with President Donald Trump. So, you can see how the company, which the AP reports also spent $13.6 million on lobbying last year, might feel like it is in the clear.

According to the AP, lawyers representing Dow and two other companies that manufacture the pesticides in question (known as organophosphates) have sent letters to the heads of the E.P.A, the Department of Commerce, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, asking them to “set aside” the results of the studies, claiming that they are “fundamentally flawed.” Not surprisingly, the scientists hired by Dow “to produce a lengthy rebuttal to the government studies” have come up with diverging results.

In addition to Pruitt’s long history of, per the AP, aligning “himself in legal disputes with the interests of executives and corporations,” Dow has another reason to be hopeful the government will conveniently ignore any lingering concerns about killing off entire species: Andrew Liveris is a close adviser to Donald Trump who was literally standing next to the president in February when he signed an executive order “mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations.”

Dow also donated $1 million to underwrite Trump’s inaugural festivities, the AP reports, but God help the person who dares to wonder aloud if the check was some sort of an attempt to curry favor with the administration. As Rachelle Schikorra, Dow’s director of public affairs, told the AP, any such suggestion is “completely off the mark.”

(h/t Vanity Fair)

Trump Adviser Icahn Accused of Breaching Lobbying Rules

A consumer advocacy group is filing a complaint to Congress on Wednesday accusing President Donald Trump’s friend and fellow billionaire Carl Icahn of violating lobbying rules by pushing the White House to change the federal ethanol regulations.

Public Citizen contends that Icahn, his company Icahn Enterprises and the CVR oil refining company he owns failed to register as lobbyists, yet pushed the White House to change the EPA’s decade-old rules on ethanol — a move that would save Icahn’s company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump named Icahn, whose net worth is pegged by Forbes at nearly $22 billion, as the White House’s special adviser for regulatory reform in December, but said he would “not be serving as a federal employee or a special government employee and will not have any specific duties.”

Icahn has aggressively advocated for the change in the ethanol rules under the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard since last year, and according to the Public Citizen complaint, he submitted a proposal to the White House on Feb. 27 to overhaul the program and shift the burden for complying with the ethanol rules to fuel wholesalers. The RFS, which was created by Congress, gives EPA authority to operate the nation’s biofuels program.

The letter to the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House calls for an investigation into whether Icahn and CVR’s activities constitute lobbying of the White House for changes to the program. The complaint also cites Icahn’s work in helping select EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and the proposed language he and fellow oil refiner Valero Energy submitted to the White House for a memo that would direct EPA to make the change.

“All of this has occurred with no record of any [Lobbying Disclosure Act] filings by or on behalf of Mr. Icahn, Icahn Enterprises or CVR Energy,” the complaint reads. “It is unlikely that all these activities occurred without some individual or entity being obligated to report lobbying activity under the LDA.”

The letter is latest controversy around the ethical complications that Trump, the wealthy members of his Cabinet and his advisers have faced because of their myriad business holdings.

(h/t Politico)

Trump Signs Executive Order to Roll Back Clean Water Rule

President Trump’s newest executive orders target a water-protection rule and elevate an initiative on historically black colleges and universities into the White House.

Trump signed the executive orders in back-to-back signing ceremonies at the White House on Tuesday. The first seeks to undo the Waters of the United States Rule, an Obama administration regulation that sought to reinterpret the Clean Water Act to extend federal protections to smaller rivers and streams.

In a Roosevelt Room ceremony with farmers and lawmakers, Trump called the rule “one of the worst examples of federal regulation” and said “it has truly run amok.”

At issue: the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. Under the 2015 Obama rule, those waters could include, for example, anything within a 100-year floodplain or within 4,000 feet of a high-tide mark. “A few years ago, the EPA decided that ‘navigable waters’ can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land, or anyplace else that they decide — right? It was a massive power grab,” Trump said.

Trump’s plan of attack is similar to his earlier order aimed at a consumer-protection regulation called the Fiduciary Duty rule. Because the rule was finalized in 2015, the Trump administration will have to start the regulatory process from the beginning to remove it from the books. The executive order instructs the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do just that, asking them to reconsider whether federal jurisdiction extends to non-navigable streams.

But unlike the Fiduciary Duty Rule, which was scheduled to go into effect April 10, the Waters of the United States rule has already been blocked by a federal appeals court in Cincinnati. The executive order also asks the Justice Department to put that appeal on hold while the administration reconsiders the rule.

And it gives direct advice to agencies about how Trump would like to see the term “navigable waters” defined. In a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Justice Antonin Scalia defines them “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographic features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, did not sound optimistic that the rule would survive.

“If this were an objective review, I think that would be fine,” he said. “If this is a review that the Trump administration has already decided what the outcomes going to be, that’s not good.”

A second executive order moves the federal initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, into the White House from the Department of Education, where it was housed under the Obama administration.

Trump’s executive order establishes a President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, but still leaves much of the budgeting and administration of the initiative in the Department of Education.

“With this executive order, we will make HBCUs a priority in the White House — an absolute priority,” Trump said. “A lot of people are going to be angry that they’re not a priority, but that’s O.K.”

Grambling State University Richard Gallot, one of 80 college presidents who met with Trump Monday, welcomed moving the HBCU initiative back to the White House. “It does makes sense,” he said. “When an agency receives something from the White House suggesting action on HBCUs it has a different tone than three layers down from the Department of Education.”

Since President Jimmy Carter in 1980, every president has signed an executive order reorganizing the initiative. But Trump said moving the initiative into the White House will make it “an absolute priority.”

The HBCU order comes the day after Trump hosted the presidents of historically black colleges at the White House — cramming 64 of them into the Oval Office for a meeting. “I don’t think we’ve ever had this many people in the Oval Office,” Trump said to laughter. “This could be a new record, forever.

(h/t USA Today)

Reality

According to Vox, there is a catch: Rolling back this rule won’t be easy to do. By law, Pruitt has to go through the formal federal rulemaking process and replace Obama’s regulation with his own version — and then defend it in court as legally superior. And, as Pruitt’s about to find out, figuring out which bodies of water deserve protection is a maddeningly complex task that could take years.

Trump Signs Repeal of Transparency Rule for Oil Companies

President Trump signed legislation Tuesday to repeal a controversial regulation that would have required energy companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments.

The legislation is the first time in 16 years that the Congressional Review Act (CRA) has been used to repeal a regulation, and only the second time in the two decades that act has been law. It is the third piece of legislation Trump has signed since taking office three weeks ago.

It is the start of one front in an aggressive deregulatory effort that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress are undertaking to roll back Obama-era rules on fossil fuel companies, financial institutions and other businesses that they say have suffered for the last eight years.

The resolution repeals a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule written under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

It was meant to fight corruption in resource-rich countries by mandating that companies on United States stock exchanges disclose the royalties and other payments that oil, natural gas, coal and mineral companies make to governments.

At a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, Trump said the legislation is part of a larger regulatory rollback that he and congressional Republicans are undertaking with the goal of economic and job recovery.

“This is a big signing, very important signing,” Trump said, flanked at his desk by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other lawmakers.

“We’re bringing back jobs big league. We’re bringing them back at the plant level, we’re bringing them back at the mine level. The energy jobs are coming back,” he continued. “A lot of people going back to work now.”

Trump then asked Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), the measure’s lead sponsor, to speak about it and regulatory reform in general.

“Over 20 years, there’s been 56,000 rules that have been put in place, with very little legislative input or oversight, and it’s time that changed,” he said.

The administration and congressional allies say the SEC rule imposes massive, unnecessary costs on United States oil, natural gas and mining companies, putting them at a significant competitive disadvantage to foreign companies that do not have to comply.

“Misguided federal regulations such as the SEC rule addressed by H.J.R. 41 inflict real cost on the American people and put our businesses, especially small businesses, at a significant disadvantage,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said earlier Tuesday.

“It’s a priority for the Trump administration to fix our broken regulatory system so that it enhances American productivity and well-being without imposing unnecessary costs and burdens,” he said.

“Signing this joint resolution is one more step toward achieving this goal.”

The House passed the repeal measure earlier this month, followed shortly by the Senate.

Democrats and supporters of the SEC rule see the rollback as a victory for corruption.

“The rule they’re trying to repeal protects U.S. citizens and investors from having millions of their dollars vanished into the pockets of corrupt foreign oligarchs,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said earlier this month. “This kind of transparency is essential to combating waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement.”

Supports argued in part that if the United States takes a leading role on foreign payment transparency, other major nations would follow.

Exxon Mobil Corp., whose former CEO Rex Tillerson is now secretary of State, was one of the most vocal opponents of the rule, along with other major oil companies.

The SEC is still obligated under the Dodd-Frank law to write some form of a transparency rule for extractive industries.

But under the CRA, the agency can never publish any rule that is “substantially the same” as the one that has now been overturned.

Both chambers of Congress have also passed a CRA resolution to overturn the Interior Department’s stream protection rule for coal mining, and Trump supports the repeal.

The House has passed numerous other regulatory repeal measures under the CRA, including ones on methane pollution and gun ownership, and the Senate is likely to take up at least some of them.

(h/t The Hill)

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