British Columbia Mine Reclamation Symposium

Teck Coal's reclamation research program - a synthesis of 40 years of experience in mountain mine reclamation Straker, Justin; O'Brien, Billie; Jones, Ron 2010

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   TECK COAL’S RECLAMATION RESEARCH PROGRAM – A SYNTHESIS OF 40 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE IN MOUNTAIN MINE RECLAMATION   Justin Straker, M.Sc., P.Ag.1 Billie O’Brien, B.Sc., RPBio2 Ron Jones, B.Sc., P.Biol.2   1 Integral Ecology Group Ltd. PO Box 23012 Cook St. RPO Victoria, B.C.  V8V 4Z8  2 Teck Coal Limited Suite 1000, 205 – 9th Avenue SE Calgary, Alberta  T2G 0R3   ABSTRACT  Teck Coal operates five metallurgical coal mines in the Elk Valley of southeast B.C.: Fording River, Greenhills, Line Creek, Elkview, and Coal Mountain Operations. Along with their sister mine in Alberta, Cardinal River, these mines make Teck the second-largest exporter of coking coal in the world. Teck Coal also has two non-operating mines, Quintette and Bullmoose, in northeast B.C. Reclamation and reclamation research has been conducted on some of these sites since the beginning of modern mine development in the late 1960s. Together, these mines have reclaimed almost 7,000 hectares of land.  In 2010, Teck Coal initiated a project to compile data and interpretations on reclamation research conducted to date on their eight open-pit metallurgical coal mining operations, with the objective of producing a synthesis of the current state of knowledge with respect to reclamation techniques on these sites. This synthesis focuses on the following two questions: 1. What has Teck Coal learned in over 40 years of reclamation at its operations? or “What do we know?” and 2. What are the future challenges or needs with respect to reclamation research and practice? or “What do we need to know?”  This paper will present highlights from the Teck Coal Reclamation Research synthesis document, particulary with respect to the two questions above.   Key Words:  reclamation research, summary, synthesis, coal mine reclamation, Elk Valley  INTRODUCTION  Overview of Teck Coal’s Operations  Teck’s coal business includes six operating mines in British Columbia and Alberta, making the company one of the world’s largest producers of steelmaking coal. The Coal Mountain, Elkview, Fording River, Greenhills, and Line Creek mines are located in southeastern British Columbia, near the towns of Sparwood and Elkford, and approximately 1,100 kilometres from the ports near Vancouver, British Columbia. Cardinal River (comprised of the operating Cheviot and non-operating Luscar mine) is located in west-central Alberta, near the town of Hinton. These mines employ more than 3,000 people and have reserves in excess of 600 million tonnes. Teck also owns two non-operating coal mines in northeast British Columbia, Quintette and Bullmoose, near the town of Tumbler Ridge.  Many of Teck Coal’s mines have a long history of operation, beginning with underground mining at the turn of the last century. Elkview is the oldest site with the longest history of near-continuous operation, and is located near the town of Sparwood – underground mining on this site commenced in 1897. The Coal Mountain, Cheviot, and Luscar mines have a similar long history of mining, with underground activities commencing at these sites in 1908, 1911 and 1921, respectively. The Elkview and Cardinal River sites were also pioneers of above-ground metallurgical coal mining in western Canada, with surface mining introduced on the Cardinal River sites in the 1940s, and with Elkview beginning the first large- scale open-pit coal mining in the Elk Valley on the Harmer Ridge/Balmer mine area in 1968.  All of Teck Coal’s operating mines now employ conventional open-pit truck-and-shovel mining methods, producing primarily metallurgical coal. Following mining, the coal is washed using a variety of conventional techniques (involving cycloning and heavy-media flotation) and conveyed to dryers. Clean coal is transported primarily by rail to terminals near Vancouver and Thunder Bay, for shipping to customers in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America.  In total, Teck Coal’s operating mines have a current annual production capacity of approximately 25 million tonnes of clean coal, and an annual preparation/plant site capacity of 31 million tonnes. Remaining reserve lives (at current reserve estimates and production rates) range from 9-55 years, with a site average of almost 30 years. Teck’s operating and non-operating properties are almost 90,000 ha in area, with currently active or scheduled mining on over 16,000 ha of this area.  Teck’s mines have reclaimed almost 7,000 ha of land, approximately 1,200 ha in Alberta, 3,000 ha in northeast B.C., and 2,700 ha in southeast B.C. This reclaimed land area in B.C. represents almost 1/3 of the total coal mining disturbance footprint in the province, and over 2/3 of the reclaimed coal mining lands.  Regulatory Requirements  Teck Coal mines sites are required to meet regulatory standards in both provinces of operation. Alberta was the first province in Canada to legislate land reclamation practices, and generally defines specific reclamation requirements within individual project approvals rather than provincial acts and regulation. Alberta’s 1993 Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) and Conservation and Reclamation Regulation ensures that operators obtain reclamation certificates in respect to the conservation and reclamation of specified lands and return those lands to an equivalent land capability.  Similarly, in British Columbia, the operation of the mines is regulated by the Mines Act and the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code (HSRC) for Mines in British Columbia. HSRC requires mines to carry out a reclamation program in accordance with specified standards. For example, excluding lands that are not to be reclaimed, the average land capability to be achieved on the remaining lands is not to be less than the average that existed prior to mining, consistent with the approved end land uses.    Teck Coal’s Reclamation Research and Research Synthesis Project  Environmental considerations at all Teck Coal’s mine operations are based on the premise that mining is a temporary use of the land, and that all mines will be reclaimed to be fully productive post-closure landscapes. Teck Coal’s environmental management practices are designed to minimize environmental footprints, mitigate impacts and reclaim disturbed land to suitable end land uses. Extensive research, both past and future, is essential to furthering the scientific knowledge that allows operations to avoid or mitigate potential negative impacts from mining and provide direction for successful reclamation programs.  In 2010, Teck Coal initiated a project to compile data and interpretations on the extensive reclamation research conducted to date on their eight open-pit metallurgical coal mining operations, with the objective of producing a synthesis of the current state of knowledge with respect to reclamation techniques on these sites. This synthesis focuses on the following two questions: What do we know and what do we need to know?  The rationale/objectives for this reclamation research synthesis project are as follows:  • to compile in one document (and associated digital appendices) all of the reclamation research that has been conducted at the Teck Coal properties, for safekeeping and ease of access; • to synthesize findings of research to date, and to provide this synthesis in a single reference, for the purposes of integrating and documenting the knowledge of current and past reclamation practitioners on the Teck Coal mines, and to provide information for new practitioners; • to support successful reclamation of all of Teck Coal’s sites, by clearly articulating reclamation research findings to date, and thus identifying optimum reclamation practices. This process will support, refine or modify current reclamation practices applied operationally on Teck Coal’s mines; and • to focus future reclamation and monitoring efforts on identified remaining challenges or outstanding issues of high priority. This will ensure that Teck Coal’s history of using research to improve reclamation outcomes is continued, and that this research is adapted to focus on the emerging challenges faced by Teck Coal’s mines.  Details of the implementation of this approach for Teck’s reclamation research synthesis document are as follows:  1. Raw data – these data are typically housed as either hard or soft-copy report appendices. These reports and digital databases will continue to be the repository of this information; due to size constraints, this information will not be reproduced in Teck’s synthesis document. 2. Reports – all reports included in the synthesis document will be reproduced as digital appendices to the document. 3. Report summaries – various authors familiar with Teck Coal’s mine sites have been engaged in producing report summaries, with every report gathered for the project summarized in 1-4 pages, providing study objectives, and overview of methods used, and study findings. These report syntheses will be reproduced as hard-copy appendices to the document. Through the course of this project, summaries have been produced for over 200 reports. 4. Syntheses by topic – in order to structure the first step of synthesis, all reports have been categorized into one of ten topic areas. Information from all reports for each topic has then been synthesized into 2-5-page sections, per topic area, per geographic area (i.e., SE B.C., NE B.C., and Alberta). These synthesis sections will collectively form the main body of the synthesis document.   Figure 1. Information synthesis approach used in the Teck Coal Reclamation Research Summary (adapted from Barbour et al., 2007)  5. Integration – in the final report sections, the syntheses by topic area are more fully synthesized and integrated (across topic areas and geographic areas) to answer the two primary questions posed in the report objectives. Section 4 of the document integrates the previous syntheses to answer the question, “What do we know?”, based on the present state of knowledge and research. Section 5, “What do we need to know?”, is based on identified needs stemming from the research summarized and integrated in the previous sections, and on emerging issues of interest.  As of July, 2010, Teck Coal’s Reclamation Research Synthesis project is in progress, and only partially complete. The remainder of this paper provides an in-progress example of the summary and synthesis completed to date, focusing on reclamation for ungulate habitat. Due solely to the sequencing of information availability, the example presented here utilizes work conducted in southeast B.C. – in the final synthesis document, equal effort will be directed to all geographic regions of Teck Coal’s operations.    RESULTS  Synthesis – Reclamation of Ungulate Habitat in Southeast B.C.  Identification of Preferred Elk Browse and Forage Species  Pre-disturbance conditions on mine sites in the Elk Valley included substantial areas providing valuable ungulate habitat, particularly habitat supporting elk. For this reason, reclamation of wildlife habitat has been and continues to be a primary focus of the reclamation research programs at all of Teck Coal’s operations. It is important to note that a critical difference between pre-disturbance and reclamation scenarios is that new reclamation materials (e.g., coal waste rock) have very low carbon and nitrogen contents, and thus have very different initial conditions and cycling processes with respect to nutrient and moisture supply and biological activity. Understanding these constraints in reclamation is the key to any successful and sustainable revegetation program, including those designed for replacing ungulate habitat.  Survey and review work undertaken during mine development in the Elk Valley, particularly for higher- elevation winter range habitats, identified the following species as present in the pre-disturbance environment and highly valuable for elk (Table 1):  Reclamation of Preferred Forage (Grass and Forb) Species  Having identified grass and legume species preferred by elk for forage, reclamation research proceeded to investigate establishment of these species on mine waste rock, both in single-species trials and in multiple-species mixes. Work on establishing these species on waste rock indicated that the best establishment and longer-term persistence (5 years+) in the reclamation setting was achieved by:  • Native Grasses and Forbs – blue bunch wheatgrass, sheep fescue, mountain brome, and slender wheatgrass; • Naturalized/Introduced Grasses and Forbs – hard fescue, Canada bluegrass, and creeping red fescue.  The mean proportion of seed germination for all species, even the more successful ones, is low, averaging 5%, with even the best performers only up to approximately 15%. Consequently, on average a seed delivery rate of 2000 seeds/m2 will result in approximately 100 germinants present per m2. Comparison of “naturalized” versus native seed mixes showed similar number of successful germinants and resultant vegetative cover for both types of mixes. However, greater species diversity resulted from the naturalized mixes, whereas native species mixes resulted in vegetation dominated by slender wheatgrass. Table 1. Valued elk forage and browse species in the Elk Valley  Native Grasses & Forbs Winter Spring Summer Fall Blue wildrye Idaho fescue Rough fescue Bluebunch wheatgrass Pinegrass Sheep fescue Arctic bluegrass Mountain brome Silky lupine Fireweed Sedges Slender wheatgrass Naturalized/Introd’d Grasses & Forbs Winter Spring Summer Fall Hard fescue Timothy Sweet Clover Canada bluegrass Smooth brome Alfalfa Creeping red fescue Native Shrubs Winter Spring Summer Fall Trembling aspen Saskatoon Chokecherry Willow Prickly rose Red osier dogwood  Highly valuable – plants avidly sought by elk, making up a major part of the diet or consumed far in excess of their proportional presence.  Valuable – plants sought and readily eaten, but to a lesser extent than the above category. Such plants make up a moderate part of the diet. Unshaded cells - species with lesser value for the applicable season.  Evaluation of timing of seed application yielded variable results, but overall fall seed applications had better or equal performance (in terms of resultant plant presence, cover and biomass) to spring applications. Seed mixes were formulated for use on the Elk Valley mine sites as a result of this research, and are shown below (Table 2), with high-value species for elk forage shaded as in Table 1.    Table 2. Seed mixes used in reclamation SEED MIX # 8 (elevations below 1900 meters) Species Category % of mix by wt.    Alfalfa Introduced 34    Intermediate wheatgrass Introduced 20    Alsike clover Introduced 10    Creeping red fescue v. Boreal Introduced 10    Orchard grass v. Chinook Introduced 8    Meadow foxtail Introduced 5    Hard fescue Introduced 5    Timothy v. Climax Introduced 4    Canada bluegrass Introduced 2    Red top Introduced 2                TOTAL:   100  SEED MIX # 9 (elevations above 1900 meters) Species Category % of mix by wt.   Sainfoin Introduced 73   Meadow foxtail Introduced 5   Creeping red fescue v. Boreal Introduced 5   Alsike clover  Introduced 5   Hard fescue Introduced 5   Timothy v. Climax Introduced 3   Canada bluegrass Introduced 2   Red top Introduced 2                TOTAL:   100  SEED MIX #10 (wildlife forage mix) Species Category % of mix by wt.   Slender wheatgrass v. revenue Native 20   Crested wheatgrass v. fairway  Introduced 16   Mountain brome v. bromar Native 25   Sheep fescue Native 6   Hard fescue v. durar Introduced 6   Canada bluegrass v. reubens Introduced 2   Fowl Bluegrass Native 3   Alfalfa Introduced 22                TOTAL:   100   Indicates species identified as highly valuable for elk subsistence, see Table 1. Unshaded cells indicate species with no identified value for elk forage. Reclamation Using Preferred Browse (Tree and Shrub) Species  Similar work as described above was also conducted to evaluate reclamation using browse species. Substantial effort in reclamation research programs has been directed at techniques for successfully establishing these species on mine waste, due to the importance of tree and shrub species in providing structural and winter dietary components of ungulate, particularly elk, habitat. This work has specifically focussed on:  • identification of species most adapted to use in coal reclamation programs, and optimum planting windows, stock size, and age of seedlings for these programs; • evaluation of the use of physical plant protectors (“cones”), both to protect seedlings from browse, and to reduce desiccation during periods of excessive drought and wind; and • evaluation of ground-cover treatments for browse species establishment – a common practice on the Elk Valley mines has been to treat tree and shrub plantations with legume (typically birdsfoot trefoil) interseeding, to establish ground cover and nutrient enrichment (through symbiotic nitrogen fixation and shoot and root growth and decomposition).  The synthesis of the findings of these programs is provided in the Integration section below.  Integration – What Do We Know?  Reclamation research focussed on re-establishment of wildlife habitat on post-mining landforms has provided substantial information on techniques to re-introduce critical components of this habitat.  What species (both native and agronomics with potential for reclamation use) are most valuable as preferred forage and browse for ungulate populations? Reclamation research and pre-disturbance surveys have identified these species, as presented in Table 1. These species have been incorporated into both tree and shrub planting programs and seed mixes used on the Elk Valley mine sites (see above) as a result of this research.  Can native and naturalized/introduced grass and forb species be used successfully in reclamation of wildlife habitat on coal mining waste materials? What are the advantages of each? Reclamation research has shown that both native and naturalized/introduced grass and forb species can be successfully established as part of reclamation programs, where all naturalized species can be successfully established, and some native species can be successfully established. Both types of vegetation are capable of establishing, providing ground cover and producing above-ground biomass that can be consumed by ungulate populations as forage. In general, species diversity in areas seeded with “naturalized” mixes can be higher than those seeded with native mixes, as in the native mixes a small number of species that are adapted to rapid establishment tend to dominate resulting forage stands. Advantages of use of naturalized/introduced species are that these species are bred for rapid and reliable establishment, and thus can be used to address reclamation objectives such as erosion control, while native species can take longer to establish. In addition, above-ground biomass production of agronomic (naturalized/introduced species) is generally higher, which provides more forage for wildlife. Advantages of use of native species    are that these species are appropriate for the region, and thus may contribute to biodiversity objectives. These native species are more adapted to local conditions (particularly for successful reproduction at high-altitude, short growing-season sites), and may be more capable of long-term persistence than agronomic species. To date, there has been no evidence of declining persistence or productivity of agronomic forage stands on reclaimed sites (up to 20 years post-establishment), which relates to issues of succession discussed below.  Can native tree and shrub species be used successfully in reclamation of wildlife habitat on coal mining waste materials? What techniques optimize establishment and survival of these species? Extensive research has shown that all identified preferred elk browse species (aspen, saskatoon, dogwood, willow, rose, and chokecherry) can be successfully established on coal spoil, including challenging high- elevation winter-range sites, where long-term survival of approximately 50% can be achieved through use of optimal planting windows and plant protection. Additional species useful in providing structural or minor browse components of habitat that can be successfully established include Douglas maple, snowberry, wolf-willow, cottonwood, pine, and spruce. Despite substantial effort, it has been shown that both buffalo berry and spirea are difficult to establish on mine waste materials, and should not be included in planting programs without more research focussed on techniques for these two species.  Techniques for improving establishment and survival of seedling of these species include:  • Planting window, stock size and age - in general, deciduous species perform better after cold storage and spring planting, while locally grown conifer seedlings perform best after a hot-lift fall plant. Stock age and size were found not to have any significant influence on long-term survival. Economic considerations suggest that the smaller, younger seedlings (1+0 styro 77 seedlings, equivalent to current 410-415 container sizes) confer the greatest reclamation benefit per unit cost. • Plant protection – use of some form of plant protection has been shown to be critical to increasing survival of seedlings on challenging, high-elevation wildlife-habitat sites. Extensive work has been directed at use of individual physical plant protectors, which provide some protection both against browse damage and against wind and cold desiccation. Research on use of these protectors has shown that their use increases the survival of most deciduous species (with the exception of wolf-willow) by approximately 3 times, in comparison to unprotected plants. The optimum duration of protection for these species was found to be 3 years (growing seasons) following planting. Wolf-willow, spruce and pine showed no significant survival gains from protection. Although effective, individual plant protectors are difficult and costly to maintain; later research has investigated use of chemical browse deterrents.  Although limited in scope, this research generally indicates a survival decrease (approximately 10%) in plants treated solely with chemical deterrents, in comparison with those treated either solely with physical protectors, or with physical and chemical protection agents in conjunction. • Legume interseeding – legume interseeding of tree and shrub plantations is a common practice on the Elk Valley mines. The optimum delay of interseeding (application of seed following planting) has been found to be 2 years for standard conifer plantations established at low-mid elevations. However, use of this practice with protected plants results in excessive competition inside the protector between the ground-cover species and the protected seedling. Thus, ungulate habitat reclamation research has resulted in recommendations that the minimum interseed delay for protected plants be 4 years following plant establishment, or 1 year following protector removal.  What are the nutritional characteristics of tree, shrub and introduced forb species used for reclamation of wildlife habitat? Analysis of nutritional quality (Crude Protein and Total Digestible Nutrients) of a small number of species (aspen, wolf-willow and alfalfa) used in reclamation of ungulate habitat indicated that these species maintain these parameters over the winter period, that all species meet Crude Protein dietary requirements of 5%, but that only aspen has Total Digestible Nutrient over the 50% requirement. Thus this species plays a critical role in meeting elk nutritional requirements over the year, while the other species contribute to habitat through provision of protein. We know that grass and forb species, both native and agronomic, degrade nutritionally in the late fall and winter to the point that they no longer meet dietary maintenance requirements for ungulates. It is thought that ungulates meet these requirements by shifting their consumption to woody shrubs during this critical period.  Integration – What Do We Need to Know?  Can current seed mixes be further developed to improve performance and achievement of changing reclamation objectives? Current grass-and-forb seed mixes on the Elk Valley mine sites have been developed to meet reclamation objectives of erosion control and provision of wildlife forage; however, there are increasing motivations, both external and internal, to incorporate more native species into reclamation seed mixes, primarily to address biodiversity objectives. Current seed mixes are effective, and we want to ensure that any alterations to these mixes for the above reasons maintain or increase this effectiveness. What we need to know about the agronomic/native species issue includes:  • Are there species (e.g., crested wheatgrass) currently in reclamation seed mixes that are widely thought to be invasive and thus pose risks to surrounding ecosystems? We know that the majority of agronomic species used in reclamation in the Elk Valley are not invasive (e.g., work on exploration roads at Line Creek showed no evidence of agronomic egress from seeded disturbance, even 20 years after seeding), but perhaps a small number are. Should these species be removed from or replaced in current seed mixes? Can modified mixes be confidently used without testing? • There are some native species grass and forb species that have been shown to be high-value components of local ungulate habitat. These species are blue wildrye, Idaho fescue, rough fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, pinegrass, sheep fescue, arctic fescue, mountain brome, silky lupine, fireweed, sedges, and slender wheatgrass. Of these, sheep fescue, mountain brome, and slender wheatgrass have been incorporated into operational reclamation seed mixes, but the other species have not been utilized (including bluebunch wheatgrass, which was shown in early research to have potential as a reclamation species). Can we develop some or all of the remaining species – blue wildrye, Idaho fescue, rough fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, pinegrass, arctic fescue, silky lupine, fireweed, and upland sedges – to the stage that they can be a useful and    feasible/affordable component of reclamation seed mixes? Are these species commercially available from external sources? • Wildlife-habitat reclamation in the Elk Valley uses a mixture of native species (some native grasses, as well as native trees and shrubs) and naturalized/introduced species (typically agronomic grasses and legumes as components of forage seed mixes, as well as agronomic legumes for tree/shrub interseeding). There is much debate around the concept of succession – a fundamental assumption of mine reclamation with agronomics has long been that these species will play an important functional role early in reclamation, but will be gradually replaced by invading native species that are better adapted to local conditions. Other observers have suggested that agronomic forage stands may be successionally stagnant. Although we can conclusively prove that agronomic stands provide substantial ecologic and biologic value, there are little data to demonstrate the long-term succession patterns on these reclaimed areas. In order to address this, we need to establish successional trajectories and rates for agronomic stands, and determine if they can transition to ecosystems dominated by native species. What are successional rates for reclaimed forest stands and wildlife habitat shrub islands that are mixtures of native and agronomic species?  Are there other techniques that can replicate the benefits of individual plant protectors, without the effort/cost associated with their maintenance? Reclamation research has demonstrated that the use of individual physical plant protectors is critical to successful establishment of preferred browse tree and shrub species on high-elevation wildlife-habitat sites, through reduction in browse damage and wind/cold desiccation of plants. However, this research also highlighted the difficulty of maintaining these protectors over a large scale for the required duration of protection. Later work, both in the research and operational trial setting, has looked at use of other forms of browse protection, such as chemical deterrents and fencing. Although use of chemical deterrents requires frequent re-application to maintain effectiveness, and fencing requires substantial initial effort and expenditure, it appears that these protection methods may be more economic than use of individual plant protectors. However, we do not know if the browse protection provided by chemical deterrents or fencing is alone sufficient to enhance survival of tree and shrub seedling on high-elevation reclaimed sites, or whether some individual protection from desiccation is also required (note that this question should be evaluated on a result-per- unit-cost basis – e.g., even if overall survival rates are lower with fencing in comparison to use of individual protectors, it might be more cost-effective to achieve desired results by increasing planting densities in fenced areas, rather than by using plant protectors). Depending on the answer to this question, it may be possible to use fencing instead of individual protectors for high-value wildlife habitat sites incorporating tree and shrub planting. If individual protectors are required in some cases, we need to identify which sites have sufficient climatic limitations to require their use.  Do we have adequate information to determine the quantity or proportion of ungulate browse shrub species required to provide high-quality winter-range habitat?  As discussed above, we know that woody shrub species may provide critical digestible nutrients over the winter months, and that ungulates meet dietary requirements by shifting their consumption to woody shrubs during this critical period. We do not know the proportion/quantity of woody shrubs species necessary on reclaimed lands to fulfill this functional role. CONCLUSION  It is Teck Coal’s intent to summarize the history of reclamation research over the past 40 years at their eight operating and non-operating mine sites in B.C. and Alberta, and to synthesize findings from this work in the manner presented above. This synthesis will be valuable in guiding Teck’s future reclamation efforts on their mine sites, and in educating new reclamation practitioners on these mines. This work also has wider implications, particularly in B.C., where Teck Coal’s reclamation represents over 2/3 of the total coal reclamation completed in the province, and thus the majority of experience in this field. Thus, it is hoped that Teck’s synthesis effort will contribute more widely to overall reclamation knowledge in the two provinces through publications such as this.  REFERENCES  Barbour, L., Hendry, J., Macyk, T., Naeth, A., O’Kane, M., Qualizza, C., and Welham, C. 2007. Soil capping research in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, volume 1: technology synthesis. Draft, Syncrude Canada Ltd.


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