Friday, 20 June 2008

Thursday, 19th June 2008

Some farmers devastated by flooding; others brace for what might come
CANTON, Missouri: Looking out from the highest hill in this town, it suddenly seemed that there were two rivers: the Mississippi, of course, and now a new river, a nameless renegade that had appeared out of nowhere on Wednesday when the Mississippi's waters broke over a levee near the tiny hamlet of Meyer, Illinois, and surged over tens of thousands of acres of farm fields.
The runaway river was gruesome news for the farmers and the residents — about 100, the authorities said — near Meyer and in other towns near where more than 20 levees have overflowed so far, creating their own bodies of water during this week's flooding along the upper Mississippi. Around Meyer, part of a region of endless fields of soybeans, corn and cattle, state conservation police officers rode door to door in boats to ensure that everyone had left, and flew over in a helicopter, scanning for anyone stranded.
So it went all along the Mississippi on Wednesday, through Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, north of St. Louis: People marching along levees and flood walls, scanning for the slightest puddle or hint of pressure in the sand, waiting for what might come. In Quincy, Illinois, local officials raced to reinforce a levee they were worried about south of town; at stake were 100,000 acres of farmland and access to the Mark Twain Bridge. And federal authorities said they were closely monitoring more than 20 other levees they view as vulnerable, as the waters continue to rise downstream in the coming days.
Around Meyer, farmers were devastated. "That's all been lost, and it's not going to be replanted this season," said Gerald Jenkins, general manager of Ursa Farmers Cooperative, not far from Meyer. One of the cooperative's grain elevators, in Meyer, was swamped, Jenkins said, another at risk.
Worse, Jenkins said he feared that so many fields under water would mean not much grain for the cooperative to sell come the fall harvest. "It's a very sickening feeling," he said.

World Bank says fishing will return to the Aral Sea
ALMATY, Kazakhstan: The people of the Aral Sea region, site of one the world's worst ecological disasters, may soon see their economy revitalized and large-scale fishing and farming return, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said Thursday.
After decades of shrinking, the northern section of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan has started to fill up and fish stocks have soared as a result of a dam-building project, giving hope of revival in the region.
"As poor people around the world struggle to keep food on their tables in the face of rising prices, it is gratifying to see that Kazakhstan has found a way to give back fishermen and their families their way of life on the Northern Aral Sea," Zoellick said.
Zoellick met with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov on Thursday in a former port town on the Aral Sea to review progress on initiatives to improve irrigation around the inland sea.
What was once the Aral Sea lay on the border between the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the world's fourth-largest lake. But Soviet irrigation projects caused the sea to shrink by almost 70 percent between 1960 and 2004, causing salinity rates to rise sharply and devastating fisheries.
Kazakhstan and the World Bank joined forces in 2001 to build an 8 -mile (13-kilometer) dam between the two sections of the sea and improve management of water resources. The US$86 million project was completed in August 2005. Improved water quality boosted fish stocks in the Northern Aral Sea, enabling fisherman to increase catches to around 2,000 tons last year, up from a meager 52 tons in 2004, the World Bank said in a statement.
Discussions are continuing between the World Bank and Kazakh authorities over expanding the revitalization project by building a second dam. The bank estimates that by 2015 the project could raise water levels to Aralsk, which was once the largest port in the northern section of the sea. Aralsk is now stranded 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the shoreline.
Kazakhstan's steps are positive but limited because most of the shrinking sea lies in neighboring Uzbekistan, said Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.
"What the Kazakhs are doing is a good thing, they are making positive developments in restoring what can be called the Little Aral," he said. "The Aral at large, in the context of a whole ecosystem, is not going to be salvageable at all. The damage has gone too far."
In addition to improving local living standards, experts say the growth of the Northern Aral Sea could also restore the variety of flora and fauna in the region.
"The Aral used to be on a central migratory passage for birds," said Prof. Trevor Tanton, an environmental engineer at the University of Southampton in England. "Now many of those fish-eating birds will come back."
Growing populations and income levels coupled with poor coordination of water management among Central Asian states have strained water supplies. Almost all countries in the region have been severely affected this year by water shortages, which have ruined vast areas of crops and forced up prices of staple foods.
Zoellick said the renewed health of the Aral Sea suggested Kazakhstan may be saved from the threat of shortages in the next few years.
"The return of the Northern Aral Sea shows that man-made disasters can be at least partly reversed, and that food production depends on the sound management of scarce water resources and the environment," he said.
Anxiety grows in West over firefighting efforts
SAN DIEGO: As fire season arrives in the West, there are growing doubts about the region's ability to attack the kind of sweeping blazes that devastated parts of California last year.
The cost of fuel in fire trucks, a scramble to hire new firefighters and new budget constraints have sowed anxiety as a persistent drought worsens in California and elsewhere, even as heavy rains cause flooding in other parts of the country.
Here in San Diego County, where eight people died in two big fires last year, a long-recommended regional county fire department has still not been created, and the San Diego city fire chief has warned that a number of homes built ever closer into wild lands face peril in another major blaze.

Shell shuts Nigeria oil field after attack on offshore rig

DAKAR, Senegal: Royal Dutch Shell was forced to shut down production of its Bonga field in the volatile Niger Delta region of Nigeria after an attack by militants on a rig far offshore, the company said Thursday.
"There has been an armed attack," said Eurwen Thomas, a spokeswoman for Shell in London. "Production has been shut down."
Mandelson calls for 'grand energy bargain' between Russia and EU
MOSCOW: Russia and Europe must agree on a "grand energy bargain" and establish new mechanisms to avoid trade disputes, the European Union's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said Thursday.
At a conference in Moscow a week before an EU-Russia summit meeting, Mandelson said the two sides had to move away from "zero-sum thinking" and create a partnership built on trust.
The EU is Russia's biggest trading partner and source of investment, while Europe gets a quarter of its natural gas from Russia.
Russian and EU leaders are expected to begin long-delayed talks on a new strategic partnership pact when they meet in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk next week.
Americans finally react to sting of gas prices by driving less, a study says
HOUSTON: As the price of gasoline quadrupled over the last decade, American drivers seemed to defy the laws of economics by pumping more into their vehicles year after year.
But this is the year American drivers appear to be finally succumbing to price shock at the pump, according to a new report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm affiliated with IHS Inc. It says the slowdown in the economy and soaring gasoline prices have finally persuaded Americans to drive fewer miles in fewer gas-guzzling vehicles.
"U.S. gasoline demand will likely decline in 2008 for the first time in more than 17 years," says the report to be released Thursday. "For the first time since the 1970s and early 1980s the number of miles driven by Americans has clearly begun trending downward."
The Transportation Department reported on Wednesday that Americans drove 1.8 percent fewer miles on public roads in April 2008 compared with the same month last year, the sixth consecutive month of driving mileage declines.
The Cambridge Energy report cites some fundamental shifts in consumer behavior that suggest the beginning of an enduring trend. The report noted that in California, where gasoline prices have historically led the rest of the country, gasoline consumption has declined for two consecutive years and hybrid vehicle sales are rising.
Now the rest of the country seems to be following. Sales of pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles have fallen below 50 percent of new passenger vehicle sales this year for the first time since 2001, the report says, as consumers turned to smaller vehicles in favor of fuel economy.
"It's kind of stunning," said Aaron Brady, a co-author of the report. "It was over 50 percent as late as February and by May it fell under 44 percent. It's like falling off a cliff."
Drivers, meanwhile, are becoming more prudent in their driving habits, either by using public transportation, carpooling or just cutting down on unnecessary trips, the two authors said in an interview. "Public transit ridership is surging all over the country," said Samantha Gross, the other author.
While total vehicle miles Americans traveled grew by nearly 3 percent a year from 1984 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed suddenly in 2005 and 2006 and has declined since then.
The last time gasoline consumption declined for a prolonged period was during the oil shocks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when annual United States consumption declined by 12 percent. Fast-rising oil prices, a deep recession and improved fuel efficiency standards drove down demand for gasoline.
The same situation is beginning to emerge today, according to the report, and basic home economics explains the trends. Since the 1980s, demand for gasoline has climbed fairly steadily, except in late 1990 and 1991 because of a sharp price increase related to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and a recession. That is because spending on gasoline became a smaller percentage of family income, especially through the 1990s.
Americans spent about 4.5 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels in 1981, according to Global Insight, a forecasting firm. As gasoline prices dropped and family incomes rose, that percentage dropped to 1.9 percent in 1998. Today, it is back to 4 percent or more.
The national price for unleaded gasoline would need to average $4.23 a gallon "to create the same economic pain as in 1981," the Cambridge Energy report said. "Once unthinkable, such a level is now within view." On Wednesday, gasoline averaged nearly $4.08 a gallon.
It would take a sizable decline in consumption to get back to the levels of gasoline use only a generation ago.
National gasoline consumption has grown over the last 25 years by 40 percent because of the growing popularity of sport utility vehicles and minivans as well as longer commutes to work from the suburbs. Low gasoline prices made the growth relatively painless, until the last three years or so.
The Cambridge Energy report said gasoline demand growth slowed significantly from 2005 to 2007 and peaked last year. Demand in the first quarter of 2008 declined by 1.3 percent from the first quarter in 2007.
Even if consumers start driving more, the report predicts that the efficiency of the American vehicle fleet will continue to improve. "New fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles (scheduled to phase in starting in 2011) by themselves have the potential to begin reducing U.S. gasoline demand within the next decade," the report said.
If gasoline prices remain high, motorists may well "accelerate their preference shift toward more fuel-efficient vehicles," the report concluded. "If these trends hold, then 2007 could stand as the peak year for U.S. gasoline demand."
Bush calls for end to ban on offshore oil drilling
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to end a U.S. ban on offshore oil drilling and open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, asserting that those steps and others would lower gasoline prices and "strengthen our national security."
In recent years, the president said, "scientists have developed innovative techniques to reach Anwar's oil with virtually no impact on the land or local wildlife," referring to the wildlife refuge by its acronym. He continued, "I urge members of Congress to allow this remote region to bring enormous benefits to the American people."
McCain wants 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030
SPRINGFIELD, Missouri: Senator John McCain wants 45 new nuclear reactors built in the United States by 2030, a course he called "as difficult as it is necessary."
In his third straight day of campaign speechmaking about energy and gasoline at $4 a gallon, or $1.06 a liter, McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told the crowd at a town-hall-style meeting at Missouri State University on Wednesday that he saw nuclear power as a clean, safe alternative to traditional sources of energy that emit greenhouse gases. He said his ultimate goal was 100 new nuclear plants.
McCain has long promoted nuclear reactors, but this was the first time that he specified the number of plants he envisioned.
Currently there are 104 reactors in the country supplying some 20 percent of electricity consumed. No new nuclear power plant has been built in the United States since the 1970s.
"China, Russia and India are all planning to build more than a hundred new power plants among them in the coming decades," McCain said in this pocket of Missouri that is reliably Republican.
"Across Europe there are 197 reactors in operation, and nations including France and Belgium derive more than half their electricity from nuclear power. And if all of these nations can find a way to carry out great goals in energy policy, then I assure you that the United States is more than equal to the challenge."
Idea of offshore drilling seems to be spreading
MIAMI: Governor Charlie Crist stepped on the third rail of Florida politics this week when he abandoned his opposition to drilling offshore for oil and natural gas. But surprise, surprise, he did not die.
His call for cautious reconsideration, in fact, is spreading.
In the Capitol and along the coast here minds once closed to offshore drilling have been cracked open by the prospects of safer drilling technology and an awareness that dependency on foreign oil has heavy costs.
"It's something we need to do because of the bigger picture," said State Senator Burt Saunders, chairman of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. "We need more energy independence."
Governor Crist's position appears to line up with Senator John McCain's call for an end to the moratorium that prevents coastal drilling. With President George W. Bush now in support, Democrats say the proposal is a gimmick that will blow back against the Republicans.
But the public debate over drilling suggests that the political landscape has changed.
Several elected and appointed Florida Republicans have publicly shifted their positions in the past week. Senator Mel Martinez said Tuesday that he would consider drilling as long as it is at least 50 miles off the coast. Nicki Grossman, vice chairwoman of the Florida Tourism Commission, said Wednesday that the high price of gasoline might be more of a threat than drilling.
Saunders, a Republican from Naples, said his opinion started to change after oil rigs near Louisiana survived Hurricane Katrina without major spills that reached the shore.
He did not mention that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did cause 124 smaller spills that released more than 700,000 gallons of petroleum products, according to Coast Guard estimates.
But, he said, the cost-benefit analysis has changed because current proposals would push drilling up to 150 miles offshore.
"Initially, we were talking about drilling very close to the Florida coastline and we were talking about technology that had not necessarily been proven," he said. "Not anymore."
Most of the discussion about Florida drilling has centered on the Gulf Coast. The National Petroleum Council estimates that beneath the Gulf of Mexico's eastern edge, there might be 36.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.2 billion barrels of oil — numbers that would require extensive exploration to verify.
In the area's beach communities, opposition to drilling has been a constant. Environmentalists have long predicted a catastrophe, with ruined beaches and marine ecosystems.
But some people wonder whether the conventional wisdom has become outdated. Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors bureau, said, "You can no longer just dismiss it out of hand" because gasoline prices and drilling technology have changed.
In Mexico City Beach, a three-mile strip of sand and water with about 1,200 residents, some were unsure. "Before, it didn't seem like the way to go," said Jason Adams, 38, the owner of Marquardt's Marina. "Now I have to think about it a little bit more."
Adams said he knew it would take years for drilling to produce results.
A 2007 Department of Energy study found that access to coastal energy deposits would not add to domestic crude oil and natural gas production before 2030 and that the impact on prices would be "insignificant."
But Adams said he was studying the issue because when it comes to energy "we need to be more independent."
The big pander to big oil
It was almost inevitable that a combination of $4-a-gallon gas, public anxiety and politicians eager to win votes would produce political pandering on an epic scale. So it has, the latest instance being President George W. Bush's decision to ask Congress to end the federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along much of America's continental shelf.
This is worse than a dumb idea. It is cruelly misleading. It will make only a modest difference, at best, to prices at the pump, and even then the benefits will be years away. It greatly exaggerates America's leverage over world oil prices. It is based on dubious statistics. It diverts the public from the tough decisions that need to be made about conservation.
The whole scheme is based on a series of fictions that range from the egregious to the merely annoying. The Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, noted the worst of these on Wednesday: That a country that consumes one-quarter of the world's oil supply but owns only 3 percent of its reserves can drill its way out of any problem - whether it be high prices at the pump or dependence on oil exported by unstable countries in the Gulf. This fiction has been resisted by Barack Obama but foolishly embraced by John McCain, who seemed to be making some sense on energy questions until he jumped aboard the lift-the-ban bandwagon.
A lesser fiction, perpetrated by the oil companies and, to some extent, by misleading government figures, is that huge deposits of oil and gas on federal land have been closed off and industry has had one hand tied behind its back by environmentalists, Democrats and the offshore protections in place for 25 years.
The numbers suggest otherwise. Of the 36 billion barrels of oil believed to lie on federal land, mainly in the Rocky Mountain West and Alaska, almost two-thirds are accessible or will be after various land-use and environmental reviews. And of the 89 billion barrels of recoverable oil believed to lie offshore, the federal Mineral Management Service says fourth-fifths is open to industry, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan waters.
Clearly, the oil companies are not starved for resources. Further, they do not seem to be doing nearly as much as they could with the land to which they've already laid claim. Separate studies by the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, show that roughly three-quarters of the 90 million-plus acres of federal land being leased by the oil companies onshore and off are not being used to produce energy. That is 68 million acres altogether, among them potentially highly productive leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
With that in mind, House Democrats have introduced bills that would force the companies to begin exploiting the leases they have before getting any more. Companion bills have been introduced in the Senate, where suspicions also run high that industry's main objective is to stockpile millions of additional acres of public land before the Bush administration leaves town.
This cannot be allowed to happen. The congressional moratoriums on offshore drilling were put in place in 1981 and reaffirmed by subsequent Congresses to protect coastal economies that depend on clean water and clean coastlines. This was also the essential purpose of supplemental executive orders, the first of which was issued by Bush's father in 1990 after the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill the year before.
Given the huge resources available to the energy industry, there is no reason to undo these protections now.
Thomas W. Evans, who was an adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is the author of "The Education of Ronald Reagan."
The president of the United States has the power to attack, and perhaps destroy, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the illegal cartel that has driven the price of oil over $130 per barrel. This can be accomplished without invasion or bombing.
No special legislation is needed. The president need simply allow the states to seek relief in the Supreme Court under our antitrust laws.
The oil ministers of the OPEC countries meet periodically to set production quotas for the cartel's members and in the process establish an artificially high price for crude oil. Under our antitrust laws, this is illegal. Two years ago, Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University, estimated that the real production cost was $15 a barrel, at a time when the price was approaching $60.
Recently, an OPEC spokesman said the price could be $70 a barrel - a little more than half the current price - if speculation and manipulation could be eliminated.
The "current state of our federal laws" refers to the "act of state doctrine," which was first enunciated by the Supreme Court in 1897 with the following words: "Every sovereign state is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign state, and the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another, done within its own territory." The doctrine was seldom used, but new life was breathed into it in 1964, when the Supreme Court denied relief to Americans who lost money when Cuba nationalized its sugar industry.
Fortunately, there is another way to sue OPEC. Even if actions by individual citizens fail, a seldom-used provision of Article III of the Constitution grants original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court over lawsuits brought by states against "foreign states" and, as expanded by the United States Code, over "aliens."
The attorneys general of the various states should sue OPEC as an alien or, pleading alternatively, as a foreign state. (A joint action by the attorneys general is the method the states used to collectively sue tobacco companies, Microsoft and health maintenance organizations.)
The states should contend that Article III of the Constitution outweighs the act of state doctrine. Respect for the sovereignty of a foreign government for acts "done within its own territory" does not, even if very liberally construed, protect decisions reached by a cartel based in Austria that directs 13 nations to sell their product at inflated prices to customers outside their boundaries. If the states won the case, the court could recover substantial damages based on assets and commercial activities of OPEC member nations in the United States.
Still, even though the states are allowed to sue OPEC in the Supreme Court, they might not prevail. There are significant separation of powers issues. The court might determine that OPEC's illegal actions could be remedied only by foreign policy, as carried out by the legislative and executive branches.
That's where the president - whether it's President Bush or his successor - comes in. If the Supreme Court decided to defer to the policies of the political branches, the states could ask the president to issue a statement permitting the lawsuit to go forward, or at least assure that he would not later intervene to end it. This pathway was established in a statute passed by Congress in the wake of Cuba's expropriation of American sugar interests.
Even an adverse decision in this suit would draw attention to OPEC's destructive behavior. An informed and aroused public would demand action from whichever branch the court identified as having the authority to act against the cartel. The Supreme Court's decision would determine the constitutional path to redress.
Moreover, confronted with the likelihood of huge damages and restraint of its illegal conduct, OPEC, or some of its members, might seek a settlement establishing production goals that would provide a price closer to actual costs. The probable reduction in the price of heating fuel and gas at the pump might exceed the amount of the current federal stimulus package.
If the president allowed the states to sue OPEC, his actions would undoubtedly anger political leaders in the Middle East and create the need for diplomatic initiatives to limit the fallout. But how stable is the Middle East right now? And isn't starting a lawsuit better than starting a war?
Former Milosevic aide gets 40 years in prison
BELGRADE: Serbia's Supreme Court sentenced Slobodan Milosevic's security chief to 40 years in prison Thursday for organizing a deadly attack on a prominent dissident in 1999.
The former security chief, Radomir Markovic was convicted of trying to kill the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic in October 1999. Draskovic survived the staged road accident, and later became foreign minister of Serbia, but three of his bodyguards and a party official died in the attack.
All on EU helicopter killed in Bosnia crash
MADRID: Two Spanish pilots of the EU peace force and two German officers were killed when their helicopter crashed in central Bosnia on Thursday, a Spanish Defence Ministry spokesman said.
"Unfortunately they have died," the spokesman said

Hungry for horse meat

BORDEAUX, France: 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," I thought to myself as I sat down to dinner the other night. If I hadn't picked out the steak myself I would have assumed it was a cut of beef. But in fact a horse somewhere, probably in East Europe, had to die for this meal.
Having never eaten horse meat, I needed all my willpower to swallow the sizzling flesh. The smell and taste were decidedly different, a bit sweet, but it went down and it stayed down. To tell you the truth, I didn't like it at all. Maybe it's an acquired taste; I might try it again some day.
If I do, I won't be alone. Horse meat is once again a big thing in France, increasingly considered an alternative to expensive beef as food costs rise and people look for cheaper substitutes.
To be sure, the French patronized their boucheries chevelalines (horse meat butcher shops) throughout the 19th century, when horses were ubiquitous in the streets. (About 62,000 were slaughtered for food in 1911, a record that still stands.)
With the increase in motorized transportation after World War I, the horse population dwindled, and so did consumption. But today, horse meat sales in France are running about 6 percent ahead of last year, and the past three years have shown steady growth.

I decided to give it a try at that recent dinner after noticing a buzz at the horse meat stand at the Sunday outdoor market here. Matrons were snapping up filet mignon, beautifully strung roasts, entrecotes, horseburger patties and even liver at prices up to 35 percent less than equivalent cuts of beef. I joined in.
In other European and Asian countries - including Japan, China, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland - horse meat is a dietary staple. Breeders in East Europe are finding a ready export market for all these destinations. In Siberia, the Yakut horse, bred mainly for its fatty flesh and its high caloric content, is an important part of the local diet.
"The Italians have recently become the biggest consumers in Europe," says the national vice president of the French Fédération de la Boucherie Hippophagique (horse meat butchers). Even classic Italian Mortadella sausage can be had in a horse meat variety.
I met the vice president, Eric Vigoureux, behind his refrigerated trailer at the market. His job, besides selling the meat, is to overcome the remaining taboos against human consumption. Monsieur Vigoureux was cheerful and eager to communicate his message - horse meat is lower in fat, higher in protein and cheaper than beef, and the French are queuing up for it, he said. "It used to be red meat for the poor, but it has become democratized since the acceptance of exotic meats - ostrich, bison, that kind of thing. The main drivers are economic."
The contrasts between French and U.S. culture are endless but I can't think of an instance quite as stark as attitudes toward horse meat. The French consumed 25,380 metric tons in 2006 versus the official U.S. figure of zero. Just last year the final three U.S. horse abattoirs were closed in Texas and Illinois under pressure from animal rights groups. They had been exporting to Europe.
The mythic image of the noble horse in American history has weighed most heavily in the anti-horse meat campaign in the United States. Celebrities like the singer Willie Nelson have campaigned to stop the slaughter of horses - in the 1990s, about 100,000 a year were killed, processed and shipped to Europe.
Vigoureux defends modern European slaughterhouse practices, pointing out that horses are rendered unconscious by electroshock, then dispatched by controlled bleeding. "The animal feels no fear, no suffering," he said.
Some people can't tell the difference between horse and beef. I once overheard an American couple complain in a Paris restaurant that they could not find a decent hamburger in the French capital. When a waiter came by to take their order, he pointed to the "Steak haché (chevaline)" listed on the menu. He did not mention that "chevaline" means horse meat. They ordered it.
Ten minutes later they were all happily munching their horse burgers. If they had known the truth, they would probably have run screaming into the street.


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