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Thread: The Erosion of Jamaica Bay

  1. #1

    Default The Erosion of Jamaica Bay

    Gotham Gazette -

    Taking Action On Jamaica Bay

    by Sam Williams
    March 03, 2004

    Time and tide wait for no man, but in the case of Jamaica Bay and its marsh islands, decades of human inactivity have given the forces of nature an especially dramatic head start. That's why, though scientists still do not have a real explanation for the alarming erosion of one of the most important wildlife refuges in the United States, a number of short-term remedies are moving forward.

    "Emergency situations require drastic action," says Dan Mundy, founder of Ecowatchers, a group of Broad Channel and Howard Beach residents that first publicized the crisis six years ago; according to a 1999 study, the 13,000-acre bay was losing up to 45 acres of vegetation and wetlands every single day. "The patient is dying and we've got to try anything available."

    "Anything" in this case means the Army Corps of Engineers, an organization once regarded as the No. 1 enemy of U.S. wetlands by environmental groups. Thanks to an institutional change of heart -- motivated in large part by the Water Resources Development Acts of 1986 and 1992 -- the 229-year-old civil engineering wing of the U.S. military is now a leading player in the battle to reclaim lost swamps and marshland.

    For New York, that means bringing Jamaica Bay and the non-commercial sections of the Hudson and Raritan River estuary systems back to a semblance of their original state. The Army Corps of Engineers will take the first step in that long journey this spring when it begins to level the banks of Gerritsen Creek, a Marine Park waterway that empties west of Floyd Bennett Field. Using bond funds from the New York City parks department and a small portion of its own $25 million special projects war chest, the corps plans to spread the resulting materials into the waterway at levels amenable to native grasses such as Spartina alterniflora (smooth cord grass), a primary food source for migrating waterfowl.

    The Gerritsen Creek project is a signal move, representing one of the first major shifts away from studying the problem to reversing the problem.

    Whether or not such a reversals proves permanent, Len Houston, the corps' environmental chief for the New York District, sees the 70 acre redesign as setting the table for more ambitious projects aimed at reshaping some of the hardest-hit regions in the bay.

    "We're very much interested in getting this first [project] in place, in learning from it, and in using that knowledge to improve our future projects," Houston says.

    Delivering that news at a community forum this month, Houston was the rare optimist amid a two-hour lineup of sobering skeptics. The forum, held at the New York Aquarium, was the culmination of a two year study initiated by a National Parks Service blue ribbon panel in 2001. The study's aim: monitor and quantify erosion patterns within Jamaica Bay, identify the root causes, and -- hopefully -- offer a solution.

    Though the scientists agreed that the bay was losing vegetation and wetlands at an alarming ratem, about the only other consensus was the need for more time and more data. Especially baffling was the fact that some marshes, most notably the JoCo marsh just off JFK Airport's southernmost runway, have remained stable. Could it be the rising sea level? The freshwater effluent from nearby sewage treatment facilities? The effects of mussels and geese on local drainage patterns? Scientists could only turn up their hands.

    "There's no one single factor, and no single smoking gun," argued Denise Reed, a visiting professor from the University of New Orleans and a member of the 2001 blue ribbon panel.

    Such assertions offered cold comfort, however, to attendees like Mundy, who, even while lending his bird watching skills to one of the scientific programs, has been campaigning for more short term restoration projects to balance out purely observational studies ever since the blue ribbon panel issued its call for "pilot projects."

    "My fear is that scientists like to study the problem more than they like to fix the problem," Mundy says. "The wetlands will go away and they'll still be out there studying."

    Mundy voiced approval for one scientific project: the artificial expansion of the marsh known as Big Egg carried out by scientists from the National Parks Service and Brooklyn College. Using a dredge boat and a jet sprayer, scientists relocated bottom sand to the top of the marsh. This spring, they will be on hand to observe whether or not the buried grasses can break through.

    Though not entirely successful -- lead scientist George Frame of the Gateway National Recreational Area acknowledged that much of the spray stream fell short of its intended target -- the project, like the Gerritsen Creek project, puts scientists in the position of pitting one tactic against the next in the hopes of finding the stronger remedy.

    "It started a bit later than I hoped it would, but now, at least, we'll get to see if it works," Mundy said. "And even it doesn't work, it's better than nothing, and we'll still be able to learn something."

    Other (literal) grass roots activists weren't as optimistic. David Schulman, a resident of Marine Park and a member of the Salt Marsh Alliance, voiced concern over the aggressive Gerritsen Creek plan. "I walk through that park at least three times a week," Schulman said. "Right now, it's gorgeous the way it is. We've got bats hanging in the trees, many of which are probably going to be torn out."

    With the project already slated to go forward, Schulman said he would take a camera to the Gerritsen Creek park and take photos to document the work. With the corps planning a similar project for Spring Creek, a Jamaica Bay tributary located on the western side of Howards Beach, he said the photos might lend weight to a community critique on the corps' engineering methods.

    Speaking on behalf of the Salt Marsh Alliance, an organization founded in 2002 to help support the city's new Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park, Schulman welcomed the corps' assistance in expanding Brooklyn marshland but didn't welcome the leap of faith that came with it.

    "We just want to make sure they don't screw it up," he said.

    One additional way to prevent that, Mundy says, is to get local input into the process before the earth-moving machines go to work. After years of buttonholing local politicians, Mundy knows he can influence the process. Still, in a situation where most residents can only offer input during a brief public comment period, governmental groups such as the corps run the risk of flying blind.

    As an example, Mundy points to Houston's recent attempt to secure local help in finding a lost tide-measurement device. Planted in the middle of the bay during the fall, the device disappeared during January when winter ice crushed its anchoring platform. In a bid to get both the instrument and its valuable data back, Houston passed out flyers with a picture of the device.

    "If they'd told us they were going to put that device out in the bay and what they wanted to do with it, we might have been able to set up a system for people to check up on it," Mundy says. "Even when it was icy, I could have gone out on my ice boat. Now it's gone and they need our help to get it back."

    Because the project involves the pooling of government funds, data, and equipment, Houston says he prefers the current set-up whereby governmental organizations do the planning and then submit those plans for public comment before going forward. Motivated citizens can lobby the key players, offering advice and local insight, but for the moment, Mundy's higher priority is building trust with the agencies whose assistance can streamline similar future efforts.

    "Agencies need to learn how to work together," Mundy says.

    Jim Gennaro, a member of the New York City Council representing eastern Queens and the chairman of the council's committee on environmental protection, says his committee will be holding its second hearing on the bay this spring. The first was in 2002, and the goal of the forthcoming hearing, he says, is to measure the progress since then.

    Gennaro believes that the first order of business is building rapport between government groups, first, and only after that has been achieved, with grassroots groups as well.

    "Everybody's got a role to play here," he says. "Dan's trying to win individual battles in this marsh or that marsh, but the goal at the end of the day is to win the war with a coordinated attack."

  2. #2


    Gerritsen Beach Photos

    The final Gerritsen Creek Restoration Report by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Page 82 lists other NY area eco projects. Amazing how they have reinvented themselves.

    The creek used to extend to Kings Highway, but in the 1920s the section north of Ave U was filled in and converted into a storm drain. A large park/playground sits over part of the old creek.

    There is an attractive NYC Parks nature center at Ave U that maintains trails. I have a photo somewhere - I'll try to find it.

    The area is named for the Dutch Gerritsen family who received a land grant in 1636. They built a grist mill in 1645, supposedly the first tidal-action mill in North America. A 2nd mill was built in the 1750s, and supplied grain to George Washington's troops. It operated until the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1940s the mill was destroyed by fire, but the pilings are still there.

  3. #3


    Gerritsen Creek Salt Marsh

    ...and three bonus galleries: Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach.

  4. #4


    July 7, 2006
    Rebuilding Jamaica Bay, One Load of Sand at a Time

    Over the past few decades, for reasons nobody fully understands, the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay have been washing away. The grasses that anchor the bay's island archipelago have slowly withered, leaving the sand to drift off with the tides, the disintegration accelerating as time went on until nearly 50 acres of marsh disappeared with each passing year.

    "It was a war of attrition," said Dan Mundy, the founder of the environmental group Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, as he stood yesterday on Elders Point Island, a marsh island that has shrunk to a fraction of its original size. "Every day, we're losing thousands of square feet."

    But during the last month, work began on an ambitious $13 million campaign to rebuild the salt marshes, which would otherwise disappear over the next 15 years if the current rate of attrition were to continue. It is the first major reclamation effort targeted at Jamaica Bay — a 12,000-acre estuary where numerous clam, crab, fish and bird species can be found — and one of the largest environmental projects in the city's history.

    "We have to make sure the marshlands and the ecosystem they support are around for future generations," Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a Democrat whose Congressional district includes many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that ring the bay, said at a news conference and marsh tour yesterday that commemorated the early stages of the reclamation.

    Mr. Weiner led efforts to gain financing for the project, a combined effort by the Army Corps of Engineers, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Park Service and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

    Yesterday, officials from those agencies assembled on Elders Point Island, where their speeches were periodically interrupted by the sounds of jumbo jets from nearby Kennedy International Airport, and their audience was made up mostly of seagulls and reporters. A stiff breeze rustled pots of cordgrass sitting nearby, as construction crews spread wet sand on the water's edge.

    Over the last few weeks, 120,000 cubic yards of sand have been added to the eastern half of Elders Point. In the next two years, the project will restore about 70 more acres, anchoring future reclamation projects in the marshes.

    The project had to overcome some significant early resistance. During the 1990's, residents of Broad Channel, the island neighborhood that sits in Jamaica Bay between Howard Beach and the Rockaways, began noticing that the marshes they considered their backyard were shrinking. State environmental officials, however, were initially slow to agree.

    "It took an enormous amount of arguing with the powers that be to convince those of us in government that there was a problem," Mr. Weiner said.

    Satellite photography in the late 1990's showed conclusively that the marsh islands — there are 16 left in Jamaica Bay — were ebbing away, and that Elders Point would most likely go next. (Elders Point, once a single island of 132 acres, is now two islands totaling about 21 acres.) A 2002 report prepared by a panel of environmentalists and scientists laid out several theories for the marshes' disintegration, from rising sea levels to overly clean bay water that deprived the islands of waterborne sediment.

    The restoration plan is financed by the Corps of Engineers, in connection with a $1.6 billion project to deepen New York Harbor, and by the Port Authority.

    The current plan repairs the erosion using sand that was dredged last year from near the Rockaways. Stored at nearby Floyd Bennett Field, the sand — mixed with water — is being pumped through a three-mile-long pipe along the bay floor and spit out near the reclamation area. During the next two years, workers will place by hand about 900,000 marsh plants, mostly cordgrass, on the new mudflats.

    The plants, too, have local roots. They were grown from seeds collected at the site last year and germinated at federal greenhouses in New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan and West Virginia.

    "What's there now are remnants of the historic marsh, like a patchwork quilt," said Scott Nicholson, a project manager for the Corps of Engineers. Within about five years, he said, the new marsh should achieve the density of the existing one, after which the corps will continue to monitor the island's stability for another five years.

    "What we're going to see out there is a high-density marsh island with grass that will bend and wave in the wind," Mr. Nicholson added. "The birds will be attracted to the kinds of shellfish and fish that thrive in that sort of marsh environment. And we expect the island to be a vital part of the Jamaica Bay ecosystem. It will be really beautiful."

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  5. #5


    Everything you wanted to know about Jamaica Bay:

    March, 2007

    Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan, part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

  6. #6
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Jamaica Bay: Wilderness on the Edge


    Don Riepe, near an osprey nest, has lived on Jamaica Bay since 1981.
    He is among the advocates who work to protect the bay from human intrusion.


    OF all the ways to describe Jamaica Bay — it is the city’s largest open space, it is a perch of choice for more than 300 species of birds, it is that wetland thing you fly above while landing at (or leaving) Kennedy Airport — the most suggestive of its singularity is that it sits within the only national park in the United States you can reach by subway.

    A giant salt water puddle, pooled over 20,000 acres beneath the leaky eaves of southern Queens and Brooklyn, the bay lies at the far end of the Rockaways A line. And to ride that line from Times Square to Canal Street to Broadway Junction, and then through Ozone Park to Howard Beach and Broad Channel, where suddenly there are marshes offshore and ibises and egrets in the sky, is to understand that with a simple 90-minute trip one can find a wilderness within the city limits.

    The bay is “the one place in New York where nature is so dominant that it makes the city a backdrop,” Brad Sewell, an environmental lawyer and blogger, recently wrote.

    Of course, that backdrop has caused the bay considerable trouble over the years. Since the industrial revolution, it has served as a dumping ground for items that the city does not wish to see: its garbage fills, sewage treatment plants and occasional dead bodies.

    But in the past 10 years or so, as the greening of New York has taken hold, an alliance of officials, environmentalists and local advocates has emerged to save the bay from what makes it so distinctive — which is to say, from its condition as a wild place in the country’s biggest city.

    Today, Jamaica Bay has reached a kind of inflection point, poised between what it is and what it could become.

    The lush, green cord-grass marshes are still eroding rapidly, but terrapin turtles have returned in such force that just last month, a stubborn bunch blocked a busy runway at Kennedy. Seals have been spotted sunning themselves on shore rocks. Fleets of kayaks are available for day trips. Even Brooklyn hipsters — those self-conscious harbinger birds, arriving early at what’s soon to be in vogue — have been flocking to the summer cabanas that rest along its shores.

    All this energy reflects a central fact: Jamaica Bay sits at the literal and figurative edge where the natural and the manmade worlds collide. “It’s just a beautiful, natural ecosystem in the middle of this huge metropolitan area,” said Don Riepe, a suntanned 71-year-old who has lived on the bay since 1981 and has held the title of Jamaica Bay guardian for six years, since retiring from the National Parks Service. “I love the smell and the sound of the bay, the calmness of the water, the marine life, the bird life, the seasons.”

    It was 5 o’clock on a recent Sunday evening, and everything that Mr. Riepe described was serenely on display: the sea grass swayed, the horseflies buzzed, the bright blue buoys marking crab traps bobbed in silence on the darker, bluer surface of the bay. Mr. Riepe (pronounced REE-pee) had piloted his 22-foot motorboat, the Oystercatcher, through a reach of shallows called the cow patch and now began to putter beneath the Cross Bay Bridge. A peregrine falcon watched from an abutment. The air smelled humidly of salt. The public housing projects of the Rockaways loomed into distant view.

    When Mr. Riepe arrived at JoCo Marsh, the largest and best preserved salt-grass section of the bay, hundreds of birds — Forster’s terns, laughing gulls, osprey, willets, herons — were revolving in a circle over the water, a great avian feeding wheel feasting on marine life. At the same time, from Runway 4 Left at Kennedy, birds of a decidedly different feather — airplanes bound for Europe: Finnair, Air Berlin, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa — were taking off at two-minute intervals and screaming overhead.

    “You really get a sense out here,” Mr. Riepe said, “how this beautiful thing, the bay, sits on the cusp of the huge, globally important thing at the airport.”

    Mr. Riepe lives in Broad Channel, in a small house on the water, with a small back deck where he takes his morning orange juice and a private dock at which he moors his boat. As he returned and tied the Oystercatcher to a bollard, he smiled and said, “There’s Igor.” Igor is the egret who visits from time to time.

    He opened his door and Igor stepped contentedly inside. The 4-foot-tall wild bird was soon enjoying canned sardines, fed to him by hand, in Mr. Riepe’s kitchen.
    It was, it must be said, an improbable scene, one made even more so by the skyline of Manhattan visible — in the distance — through the window.

    MORE or less since the development of lower Queens and Brooklyn in the 19th century, New Yorkers have been slowly destroying Jamaica Bay. On Mill Island, in the northern portion of the bay, there was an asphalt factory and a lead-smelting operation. Bone-boiling businesses and guano plants took root. According to a 1981 history commissioned by the United States Department of the Interior, the “disposition of refuse from New York became the principal activity” on the bay around the turn of the 20th century. On Barren Island, there were facilities for turning dead horses into glue. At 10 a.m. each weekday, the federal study said, a “horse boat” would arrive with up to 50 dead horses onboard, along with the bodies of cats, dogs, even cows.

    In 1905, as the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts grew ever more congested, a wild plan emerged to turn Jamaica Bay into the world’s largest deep-water port. The shallows were to be deepened, manmade islands with slips and piers were to be built, a rail network was to be put in place, and the shoreline was to be covered in bulkheads. Some of this actually happened: the Rockaway Inlet was dredged; and Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first municipal airport, was created. According to the pictorial history “Jamaica Bay,” by Daniel Hendrick, it was no less than Robert Moses, the city’s master builder, who finally put an end to the plan.

    Even in 1938, as Mr. Hendrick notes, Moses could complain, “Jamaica Bay faces the blight of bad planning, polluted water, and garbage dumping. Are we to have another waterfront slum?”

    Fifteen years later, the city’s parks department established the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and Herbert Johnson, its first superintendent, had a crew of workers transplant more than 1.5 million individual clumps of beach grass from the nearby shore to a newly dredged plot of land. The problems in the larger bay persisted, however, even in 1972, when the federal government incorporated the bay into the Gateway National Recreation Area, which skitters across the mouth of New York Harbor, from Sandy Hook to the west, to the tip of Kennedy Airport to the east.

    Now, through the efforts of environmental groups and city and state officials, Moses’s 60-year-old grievances are being answered. Just last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, representing smaller groups like the American Littoral Society and the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, signed an unprecedented agreement with the city and state to cut in half, by 2020, the amount of nitrogen discharged into the bay from four city sewage treatment plants. Under the agreement, the city will pay $100 million to upgrade technology at the plants and will spend an additional $15 million to slow the erosion of the bay’s marsh islands.

    “It’s big,” said Mr. Sewell, the blog-writing lawyer who works for the council. “The bay is the most nitrogen-polluted body of water in the world. There are a lot of people” — nearly 500,000, in the watershed, he said — “whose you-know-what partly ends up in the bay.”

    Nitrogen is nontoxic but causes harmful algae blooms that render waters inhospitable to marine life, affecting not only fin- and shellfish populations but the local and migratory birds that feed on them. Mr. Sewell and his law partner, Larry Levine, said nitrogen might also be responsible for the accelerating loss of the bay’s marshlands, which control shoreline erosion and provide temporary resting grounds for the thousands of weary birds that pass through every year on the Atlantic Flyway.

    “Improving water quality is the first step; everything follows that,” said John McLaughlin, director of ecological services at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. With the recent nitrogen agreement, Mr. McLaughlin said, “we’ve basically made a commitment to the long term.”

    The other day, he was aboard the Osprey, the department’s water-testing vessel, as it took samples in the bay. From the wheelhouse, he pointed out a spot on Breezy Point, at the west end of the Rockaways, where the city was attempting to restore local eelgrass (it would, he said, attract menhaden and other indigenous fish). The city also has a program to replenish the oyster population in Jamaica Bay, which, a hundred years ago, boasted some of the best oyster beds on the East Coast. This is no mere act of nostalgia. A single adult oyster, Mr. McLaughlin said, can filter up to 35 gallons of water a day.

    IT is endeavors like these — combined with a separate effort to control sewer overflows, like the recent discharge of sewage in Harlem that closed beaches as far away as Staten Island — that have made Jamaica Bay a test case for the fragile relationship between the natural and urban worlds and have thrust it into the vanguard of environmental technology.

    “In a sense, the bay is serving as a laboratory for the entire world when it comes to new nitrogen treatments,” Mr. Sewell said, “and as a laboratory for the city when it comes to storm-water overflows.

    “It really is an incubator for progressive programs for New York and beyond,” he added. “It’s actually pretty cool.”

    The Sebago Canoe Club has for more than 75 years occupied a scruffily idyllic spot on Paerdegat Basin, an inlet of the bay in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. The club’s old photos show cocky local kids standing with their chests puffed out in matching tank tops. This month, there was a three-hour paddle from the clubhouse dock to a grassy patch of marshland a mile and a half offshore.
    By 5 p.m. or so, a dozen members had arrived and set out in a loose pod on the water. The kayaks at Sebago are skinny, yellow things; they floated like bananas on the bay.

    With three trip leaders showing the route, the paddlers traveled past the speedboats tied up at a neighborhood marina and then beneath a busy bridge into the gleaming pewter basin of the bay. Afterward, as always, the kayaks would be washed down with a hose; at a backyard picnic table, pizza would be consumed.

    “It takes you away,” Tony Pignatello, the baseball-capped commodore of the club, said of these weekly trips. “It’s almost like you’re in the country. It’s just a natural, natural place.”

    Mr. Pignatello, like most of the club’s 250 members, lives nowhere near Canarsie (he lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens) and commutes to the bay, which, in this section, is mostly populated by Caribbean immigrants. Between a third and a half of all people living on the bay are foreign born, local officials say, and their connection to the water can range from the religious (coconut shells, even cremation ashes, sometimes wash ashore from Hindu rituals ) to the nonexistent (“I tell my West Indian friends, ‘Come out, we’ll put you on the water,’ ” said Walter Lewandowski, the club’s kayak chairman. “They say: ‘Me? In a kayak? Forget it.’ ”).

    This is important because Jamaica Bay, with notable exceptions, lacks a local constituency capable of arguing its merits to the confusingly diverse bureaucracy that oversees it, a list that includes the National Parks Service, the city’s parks department, the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers. One chief reason the bay has been neglected so long, said Mr. Hendrick, the historian, is that many residents live in the area because the housing is cheap or because they work at Kennedy and have no experience, or interest, in dealing with the miscellany of officials.

    The exceptions are the residents of Broad Channel — people like Mr. Riepe or Dan Mundy Sr., president of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers — who helped set in motion the current grass-roots resurgence. It was Mr. Mundy, a retired New York Fire Department captain, who more than a decade ago noticed the bay’s declining water quality and brought in the Army Corps for a boat tour of its marshes. (The corps is now involved in a multimillion-dollar project to restore them.)

    Just this spring, after the Regional Plan Association, an independent research group, proposed expanding Kennedy by filling in a portion of the bay, 150 residents and civic leaders packed the American Legion Hall in Broad Channel to vociferously criticize the plan. Mr. Riepe showed up with photos of the birds and animals that lived, and thrived, beside the airport. Mr. Mundy rose and said, “The people in the back of the bay, they know the bay.”

    Jamaica Bay’s conservationists — fishermen and firefighters, limousine drivers and owners of small boats — are not your typical tree-hugging types, not “Upper West Side, Park Slope, brownstone Brooklyn people,” as Mr. Riepe put it. They are people like Mr. Lewandowski from the canoe club, a transit official, who described the bird migrations on the bay succinctly: “The birds fly down from wherever in Canada. They, you know, take a rest. Then they fly on.”

    This is appropriate and seems to have worked quite well, especially in the matter of the airport plan, which many on the bay assume will never happen, if only because it would require a gridlocked Congress to amend current law. While professional environmentalists like Mr. Sewell have provided the science and a certain intellectual heft to the fight to save the bay, the hard, early work was done by local residents themselves.

    One hot afternoon, after leaving the waters near the airport, Mr. Riepe steered the Oystercatcher into Vernam Basin, a rank industrial inlet on the bayside of the Rockaway Peninsula. A large cement plant sat on the bulkhead. Derelict barges were covered in graffiti. A motorboat with a classic local name, the “How U’ Doin,” lay abandoned in the oily flats near shore.

    Floating for a moment, not quite shaking his head, Mr. Riepe expressed the common and commonsense attitude toward saving Jamaica Bay.

    “It just makes sense,” he said. “It’s just intuitive to protect it.”

    He paused, then continued.

    “Because it’s beautiful — and natural,” he said.

  7. #7


    What a great article. Thanks!

  8. #8


    While I don't have any problem with cleaning up Jamaica Bay, it can't be allow to stand in the way of expanding JFK as necessary.

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