Down the Drain
On March 27, 1998, the chlorine gas cylinder at the Northeast water plant on Staple Street needed to be changed. Although a common procedure, the task requires knowledge and care -- chlorine is a highly toxic chemical that can cause permanent respiratory damage and other serious health problems if inhaled.
Ruben Slater, a city water employee, unhooked the old cylinder and connected the new one. But something went awry, and the cylinder leaked. Slater sucked gas and fell to the ground, gasping for air. "I could hardly breathe," he recalls, clenching his fists. "I thought, if I stay here, I'm gonna die."
Slater managed to crawl to his truck and radio for help. He spent three days at Hermann Hospital, then had to be readmitted when his condition deteriorated. It was two months before he could return to work; more than a year later, he continues to suffer from the effects of his injury and must take a host of medications to control his symptoms, which include periodic asthma attacks and high blood pressure. "My lungs and liver are still giving me the blues," he says with a noticeable wheeze.
Accidents happen, but in Slater's case, it shouldn't have. A maintenance mechanic whose primary job was to fix pumps and motors, he'd never changed a chlorine cylinder before. And although his bosses later stated he'd been doing his regular job and was properly trained, that training had consisted of a single session conducted by his supervisor eight months earlier. According to Slater and another employee there for the training, the supervisor botched the procedure and vented poisonous gas.
Federal regulations require the Northeast plant to have a safety shower; in case of chemical exposures such as Slater's, immediate flushing with water can reduce the severity of the injury. But the plant had no shower, and it doesn't today. In fact, dozens of the city's water plants lack that basic safety feature.
The Water Production Branch has a safety team that is supposed to inspect facilities and note violations. But city records indicate those audits are done only sporadically and only at certain plants. And when they do make inspections, problems often take months to correct, if they're corrected at all.
Water Production chief Roger Hulbert says that safety is of primary importance and that his staff responds to worker concerns. "If there's any corrective action that needs to be taken, it's done," Hulbert says.
But Slater, whose encounter with chlorine has made him particularly sensitive about safety issues, dismisses Hulbert's remark as pure gas. "My impression is that they do not have any concern about the safety of the employees," Slater says.
Flawed safety standards are alarming, especially given that Water Production workers have sustained more than 30 lost-time injuries the past three years (though some were likely caused by employee carelessness and had nothing to do with bureaucratic negligence).
But worker safety isn't the only area in which the plants are deficient. A Houston Press investigation found dozens of state and federal violations at various plants. These include fuel tanks with no containment areas to control spills; unlocked barriers which are supposed to prevent people from climbing tanks and contaminating the water supply; protective equipment either missing or in disarray; inoperative emergency generating systems to provide water during blackouts; hazardous materials left unsecured.
The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission inspects the city's water system every year to ensure compliance with laws. But the inspections are less than rigorous: Despite obvious violations visible from outside plant gates, the TNRCC somehow found no violations during its 1999 survey. In previous years inspectors found "alleged noncompliances," but wrote in their report that all had been resolved. "The state inspection is a farce," says a longtime city plant operator.
The Press also learned that in an effort to streamline operations and keep costs low, the Water Production Branch has slashed the workforce, scrimped on training, deferred maintenance and reduced the level of chemical treatment. While this may please the budget cutters, it may not do much for what comes out of the tap -- customer complaints about water quality increased 25 percent the past fiscal year.
Moreover, Water Production managers have been allowing unlicensed operators to run water plants for more than a year. Results have been decidedly mixed: On August 14, an unlicensed operator at the East Water Purification surface-water complex on Federal Road forgot to turn off a pump, causing a 1,000-gallon caustic soda spill. Some of the chemical flowed into Hunting Bayou; the Coast Guard and state Parks and Wildlife officials had to be called onto the scene.
Roger Hulbert denies that the use of unlicensed operators has contravened the rules. Besides, he says, anybody can make mistakes. "I think there will be intermittent problems with human error whether it's a licensed operator or not," Hulbert says.
And while Hulbert acknowledges that the department has been undergoing downsizing (which he prefers to call "optimization"), he insists that nothing is lost in the translation. "Our goal is that in the optimization process, safety is never compromised, no rules are ever broken," he says.
But those inside the plants say that notion is, at best, wishful thinking. They find the use of untrained and unqualified personnel inexcusable -- especially since the city employs licensed operators who are doing unrelated work. "It's bad," says David DeFord, a 15-year Water Production operator who was recently transferred from the Federal Road complex. "You're looking for an accident to happen."
"If they know the people are not qualified," DeFord continues, "why would they want to put the public health at risk?"
Willie Dixon recites the procedures in clipped military tones, befitting her background in the Air Force. The personnel director for the Water Production Branch whose responsibilities include safety, Dixon has ready answers for all questions and shoots them back as though from an assault rifle. "We monitor the safe working conditions of the employees," she says sharply.
With five additional employees working the safety beat, she says, the bases are covered. One is in charge of training; two coordinate the city's groundwater and surface-water plants; a fourth handles risk-management issues; the fifth, Dixon says, "inputs data."
The two coordinators, Dixon says, conduct safety audits and follow-ups, about 75 annually. "We don't necessarily look at all of the locations," she says, "but we try to do the majority each year."
When an injury occurs, a safety coordinator investigates and helps the injured worker's supervisor fill out an injury report. Beyond that citywide requirement, the coordinator sometimes issues a supplemental incident or accident report, but only "when the supervisor's report is inadequate," Dixon says vaguely. In addition, she says, "We give advice to people with questions or concerns."
Harry Bosier and Melvin Hughes have had some major concerns, but they've gotten little advice from Dixon. On January 8, 1997, Bosier and Hughes were doing an inventory of a storeroom at the Southwest plant on Westpark when they noticed a strange smell. A broken container evidently had leaked fluid containing mercury and released toxic vapors.
According to documents filed by Bosier and Hughes, they found a variety of chemicals in unmarked containers strewn about the storeroom and other areas of the plant. The two compared notes and found they had experienced similar health problems over the months. They informed several higher-ups of the situation in writing. Bosier sought medical treatment and learned he had elevated levels of aluminum in his blood and signs of congestive heart failure, which the doctor surmised was due to chemical exposure. He couldn't work for over six months and must still occasionally hook himself to an oxygen tank. "I was in the hospital," Bosier says. "I could have died."
Except to deny the pair's claims for workmen's comp, their superiors had little response. No safety manager interviewed them; no paperwork was generated. "They didn't make a report," Bosier says. "They ignored it."
Dixon admits that her team failed to investigate, but says there was a good reason. "When this came in, it was what we considered a routine complaint," she says.
Most complaints must seem routine, including Ruben Slater's gassing, because the department has apparently written only three accident reports in the last four years. All stemmed from injuries at the Federal Road complex. One of those looked into a worker's assertion that his ankles had become inflamed because his city-issue work boots didn't fit properly.
Water Production director Roger Hulbert, who visited Slater in the hospital, acts surprised that there is no paperwork documenting his case. "I would think that our safety personnel would have investigated it and done a report," he says.
Regardless, Dixon says, she didn't even know about the unmarked chemicals in the Southwest plant storeroom until well after the initial incident. "[The workers] did not report it to us," she says. "When we discovered it, yes, we went out and took care of the problem."
They did take care of the problem, but not until the state Department of Health sent investigators to the site almost two months later, after a complaint by Bosier and Hughes. The investigators found three "serious violations," including a group of unmarked "metal and plastic drums, numerous smaller rusty cans and other miscellaneous containers sequestered on the grass without an underlying liner."
The violations should have been detected during one of the safety audits touted by Dixon. Groundwater safety coordinator Robert Johnson conducted an audit of the Southwest plant three weeks before the health department knocked on the door, but his one-page report made no mention of unlabeled hazardous chemicals. He did cite another of the violations later written up by the state, but nothing was done.
Other audits likewise describe various safety violations, but none of them has anything written in the "corrective action taken" box, and no follow-up reports seem to exist. "If the problem has been fixed, we don't bother with it," explains Dixon.
They don't seem to bother with it when the problems haven't been fixed, either. Periodic audits of the Federal Road complex reference the same violations over and over again, and plant workers say many of them remain uncorrected. (Yet the most recent audit, a one-pager done on July 26, notes only one minor detail that needs attention.)
At least the Federal Road plants are checked fairly frequently, if only a fraction as often as Dixon claims. The same cannot be said of the city's 112 groundwater plants: More than half haven't been audited since 1995, including the Northeast plant where Slater was exposed to chlorine gas. None were done in all of 1996 or 1998; only six have been completed this year.
The lax attitude toward safety has driven at least one employee from the city. Maintenance mechanic John Padilla was working at the Water Production offices on Ardmore a couple of summers ago, when he went across the street to get supplies from a tractor-trailer container that also stored pesticides. As he left the container, he suddenly felt dizzy and nauseated and almost passed out. After he got out of the hospital, Padilla says, his supervisor told him that ant poison had leaked into the container. That was it -- no investigation, no accident report. "Our safety department didn't come and ask me what happened," Padilla says.
"That kind of set me off to, 'I'd better start looking for another job.' "
Well before the TNRCC issued its June 1 letter certifying Houston's water system as once again deserving of the state's "superior" rating, Roger Hulbert knew what was coming. "Hallelujah! We did it again!" he wrote in an April 21 memo to the Water Production staff. "We have earned another state inspection with ZERO deficiencies."
Not that the "superior" rating is the big deal that city officials have made it out to be. In Texas, 553 water production systems currently hold the title, 46 of them in Harris County. Only a handful have been downgraded to "acceptable" after achieving it.
But as Hulbert pointed out, a perfect score is indeed worthy of high praise. Houston's water system is among the biggest in the nation, with plants and wells spread over 617 square miles and a Water Production workforce of about 200 employees. Its 2.5 million customers use an average of more than 400 million gallons a day. Drinking water is piped in through more than 6,579 miles of distribution lines from 15 separate drinking water supply areas. To have no violations whatsoever is roughly akin to reaching retirement age without ever getting a traffic ticket.
It would have been worth a lot more had it been legitimate.
A complex mix of state and federal regulations and guidelines govern management of water systems. Basic standards, however, always apply. Only operators holding a specific license, for example, are allowed to run plants, unless the unlicensed employees are under the "direct supervision" of a qualified operator. To make sure that a system complies, TNRCC inspectors are supposed to review logbooks and cross-check names with the state's list of licensed personnel.
The process must have a glitch, because inspectors missed evidence that the city hasn't always met its obligations. At the Federal Road surface-water complex, unlicensed operators have often worked the late shift at one or more of the three plants, confirmed by log entries obtained by the Press. "They're doing it pretty frequently," says former Federal Road operator David DeFord.
Hulbert says his staffing meets the minimum standard. The Federal Road plants are considered one site, not three individual plants, he says, and there's always someone around who has the required license in case there's a problem.
That's not what the TNRCC rules say: "Each surface water treatment plant must have at least a Grade 'C' surface water operator on duty when the plant is in operation."
And though agency spokesman Patrick Shaughnessy offered a convoluted explanation for why its own rule didn't apply, at least one TNRCC official agrees with the book. "They are required to have the certified operator at the facility when it is in operation," says Huyen Luu, who leads the state inspection team at TNRCC's regional office in Houston. Not a problem, he says, because he's "very sure that they do have a certified operator at each location."
One reason Luu knows is because the city told him so. After a Federal Road operator filed a complaint about the practice in May 1998, Luu inquired about the staffing at the plants. Chief Engineer John Wells submitted a shift list which was good enough for Luu -- even though one of the listed operators didn't have a license, and no follow-up was done to monitor the schedule. "In conversation and in a letter," Luu wrote in his investigation report, "John Wells assured me that plant staffing meets Commission's rules and regulations."
Three weeks later the city got its official "superior" rating, with zero violations.
Determining whether the inspectors actually review the logbooks or do the cross-checking is difficult because the inspection report gives no indication. A line on the report that asks for the names of the certified operators is marked "see attached," but state records include no attachment.
The rest of the brief report, which consists primarily of several checklists, is equally short on specifics. Each of the items dealing with storage tanks, for example, covers all 202 tanks in the system -- a single check mark on the report validates all of them. Nor is the report a compilation of the checklists of each plant, since inspectors don't fill out any paperwork when they inspect individual plants. They don't even keep their field notes (TNRCC policy says they have to throw them away), which means it's impossible to determine which inspectors looked at which plants, or what they found.
If an inspector finds a possible violation, the TNRCC is generous about letting the system fix the problem immediately so as to avoid losing its "superior" status. In the past the inspection reports noted these violations, or at least the worst ones. In 1997, for instance, the state sent a letter outlining construction violations at two city wells. After the city responded with a timetable to fix the problems, the TNRCC issued its formal seal of approval.
The following year, the official "superior" letter came with a vague allusion to possible violations. "During the inspection, no problems were encountered," the letter stated. "Some concerns were noted, though, which were alleged noncompliances that have been resolved through verbal notification and subsequent corrective action."
Whatever the "alleged noncompliances" were, or what the city did about them, will forever remain a mystery. No one ever compiled a list, nor can one be constructed from the inspectors' field notes, which have been destroyed.
This year's letter had no mention of any flaws. But that doesn't mean there weren't any: Field inspection coordinator Ross Echols figures his team found "maybe only 30 or 40" possible violations, all of which were easily fixable. And at the end of the inspection process, says Luu, the team goes back to the plants that had the problems and makes sure they were rectified.
Maybe the problems unrectified themselves immediately thereafter, or maybe the inspectors just missed them. But in addition to the dubious staffing arrangements, the Press found obvious violations at plant after plant. The emergency generator at the Enclave No. 2 plant on West Ella can't connect to the well. Containment walls are missing around the diesel tanks at the Parkglen plant on Stancliff, the District 139 plant on the Southwest Freeway and the Belleau Woods plant off FM 1960. The ladder barriers protecting the water tanks were unlocked at Belleau Woods and the District 158 plant on Bellaire. Standing water in the chlorine building imperils workers at the Lakewood Heights plant on Lake Houston Drive; the building also lacks proper ventilation.
A leaking transformer on the ground at the Braeswood plant on Bobwhite posed a potential health threat for months before it was finally removed five days after the state completed its review in April -- not because the inspectors took note of it, but because Ruben Slater filed a formal grievance that forced the city's hand.
And if the city's 27 elevated storage tanks had any problems, no one would know. Inspector Echols says that his crew climbs the short ones to conduct the required survey, but the tall ones are too taxing. "Once you climb one, at about 120 feet, you realize you don't get paid enough to do that," Echols says with a chuckle.
Echols also says that it's not TNRCC's job to enforce OSHA laws by writing up plants for not having safety showers or for other breaches of the federal code. But that's not what the TNRCC's own rules say: "Safety equipment for all chemicals used in water treatment shall meet applicable standards established by OSHA or [the state]."
"I don't know why they even put that in there," responds Echols. "We don't enforce OSHA regulations."
TNRCC's generosity with the city is matched in kind. During the two-week inspection period, Water Production provides the inspectors coffee and doughnuts in the morning and often treats them to lunch on city credit cards. Combine the chummy atmosphere with a lack of documentation, and perhaps it's no wonder that the city of Houston passes its test with flying colors.
"I'm embarrassed that we can't provide better documentation," says a high-ranking TNRCC official who recently became aware of the inspection process. "I'm appalled."
Monta Waits would seem a model public servant. A certified operator at the Jersey Village plant, Waits served as a supervisor for 17 years. His employee performance evaluations always scored at the top of the scale.
But two years ago Waits was demoted along with several other operators. He now drives a chlorine truck.
The official reason for the demotion, Waits says, was that the city decided he and the others ought to have a "B" operator's license instead of the lesser "C" license they carried. The state doesn't require that operators have a B, but the TNRCC is considering upgrading the regulations, and the city wanted to be ready. And of course the public is better served by having operators who are more knowledgeable.
Waits and several others couldn't pass the test, however, so they had to give up their jobs. He still doesn't get it. "The C license was good enough for 17 years," he says. "Why isn't it good enough now?"
But that's not what really gets to Waits. The workers the department promoted into his and other operator positions had less experience -- and fewer credentials -- than he did. "They turned around and put people in our positions who had no licenses at all," Waits says with exasperation. Now, instead of having experienced operators running the plant, the city is violating state law as well as putting the public health at risk. "Now you tell me how much sense that makes."
It doesn't, unless upgrading the skill level at the plants wasn't the objective in the first place. In reality, only one explanation fits the profile: The moves were made to slash costs. Waits took an 18 percent cut in pay. Several of the others couldn't manage the loss of income and resigned. "A whole lot of people had to quit," Waits says.
Under former Public Utilities Division director Fred Perrenot, lean and mean was in demand. Perrenot thought that the only way to stave off a private sector takeover was to be economically competitive. And the best way to achieve that was to "optimize" the system. When Roger Hulbert took over the reins at Water Production in the summer of 1997, Perrenot set a goal of shaving $8 million from the branch's $39 million budget -- a 20 percent reduction -- over three or four years.
To get there, Hulbert instituted a pilot project last summer that included the East Water Purification complex on Federal Road and the Northeast quadrant of the groundwater operations. Run by a handpicked team of managers, the pilot experimented with ways to operate the plants more effectively. One of the more obvious approaches was to eliminate the strict division of labor between the operations and maintenance personnel, a tactic often employed in the private sector. Cross-training workers to perform other functions reduces staffing to significantly lower labor costs, not to mention giving the workers marketable skills. "If it doesn't take an electrician to change a light bulb, they could be more efficient," says Hulbert by way of analogy.
But it does take an electrician to tinker with a 2,300-volt motor like the ones that power the Federal Road plants; more precisely, an electrician who has gone through a four-year apprenticeship and become certified as either a journeyman or a maintenance electrician. But according to several sources at the complex, that was too long a wait for Hulbert and his vision of multiskilled workers. He asked Manuel Dobbs, master electrician for Water Production, to sign off on a two-year maintenance mechanic program. (Dobbs declined to be interviewed.)
Dobbs refused. "His primary concern was safety," says one Water Production electrician. "He didn't want to get anyone hurt."
"They didn't want to hear it," the source continues. "They're trying to circumvent the four-year process to train electricians."
Now Dobbs finds himself on the outs. Hulbert recently hired a second master electrician, Morris Weingart, from the Wastewater Branch, making Water Production the only branch in the city with two. Weingart has already started to lobby for changes in policy, sources say; Dobbs's electrician's license number is being replaced on branch electrical trucks with Weingart's.
Asked why he needed a second master electrician, Hulbert couldn't really say. "Do we need two [people] to serve as the master electrician? Probably not."
Hulbert denies, however, that the move was made in retaliation for Dobbs's refusal to play ball with his directive, or that he even made such a directive. "I think that might be a rumor," he says. "I would say that it is."
Dobbs is not the only one who has faced consequences for resisting an erosion of safety standards. Maintenance mechanic Darrell Scott filed a grievance in 1998, in part over safety concerns. "Management is pressuring lower-level personnel to circumvent policies, provisions and procedures," Scott wrote. "I will not compromise my safety!"
Scott won his grievance. The day after the ruling he was hit with a reprimand -- for an alleged offense he'd committed 75 days earlier, even though city guidelines state that any disciplinary action should be initiated within 15 days of the infraction.
As the gassing of Ruben Slater illustrates, proper training is no trifling issue. But it's also expensive, and a number of employees allege that to keep costs down, training in the handling of hazardous chemicals and other safety areas has been cut back in violation of state and federal mandates. To get the hazardous-chemical training he and almost everyone else is supposed to receive annually, Slater had to file a grievance against his superiors. "I hadn't had it in three years," he says.
Safety director Willie Dixon says that, given vacations and other scheduling conflicts that interfere with classes, it's impossible to get everyone trained in every discipline every year. But they come as close to full training as possible. "Most of the time we get about 90 percent of our people," Dixon says. "We don't get everybody. Nobody in the city gets everybody."
Dixon's figure may not be as inflated as her safety audit estimates, but in at least one important area Water Production has fallen far short of the requirement: Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training, which teaches how to deal with chemical emergencies. According to Dixon, until a June change in the law, only safety coordinator Robert Johnson needed to take that class. "Johnson has it," she says.
But when the state Department of Health questioned Water Production's training records in the aftermath of Harry Bosier's chemical exposure, the city legal department took a very different view. "All division supervisors who supervise employees who handle hazardous chemicals must also take our course," a city lawyer wrote to the state.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a goal of streamlining operations to save money. But the combination of personnel cuts and other downsizing in Water Production may be having a negative impact that more than offsets the gains. On the afternoon of July 28, operators at Plants 1 and 2 on Federal Road were pumping a truckload of fluoride into a tank that was not being properly vented. A suction was created, spilling the highly toxic material into the tank's containment basin. The tank suddenly began to collapse. Fearful of a major accident, "everybody started running," says a plant source. Finally someone opened the vent, and the tank popped back into shape.
Workers report three other spills at the East complex the past couple of months, including the 1,000-gallon caustic soda release caused by an unlicensed operator. Last Wednesday Roger Hulbert held an all-day meeting with his top staff to reorganize the plant's operation, accelerate maintenance schedules and try to prevent future catastrophes. "It's about time," says a Water Production operator acidly. "I'm surprised they didn't wait for somebody to die."
The view from the window of the Plant 3 control room on Federal Road leaves much to be desired. Straight down lie the plant's final effluent filters, the last line of defense for the plant's drinking water before it flows into the "clear well" and then into storage tanks or directly into the distribution system.
The filters are covered with scum.
That's not the way it's supposed to be. "It's never happened before," says a plant worker with more than ten years' experience. "The quality of the water has gone down."
Roger Hulbert speaks with satisfaction of the efficiencies he has achieved in the area of chemical treatment. Cost-cutting at the surface-water plants, including the East complex, "has been significant," he says. "We have optimized the dosages of chemicals to treat the water."
Hulbert vigorously denies that the system has been compromised despite a hefty 35 percent cutback. "Our water quality goals are above and beyond what the requirements of the EPA and TNRCC are," he says.
That doesn't mean those goals are always met. In the 12 months since the start of the pilot program and the "optimization," customer complaints about odors, color and sediment have markedly increased.
When a customer calls, the city sends a worker to the residence to check the complaint and test the water. State regulations require that water samples have minimum amounts of residual chlorine; it's chlorine that kills bacteria and otherwise ensures the safety of the water supply. When water tests below the minimum, the problem must be fixed immediately.
The fix is usually simple: The line is flushed by opening a nearby fire hydrant to clear out any stagnant water and get fresh, chlorinated product up to the house. After the flushing, the worker retests the water and notes all the results on a complaint form.
For the most part, the flushing does the trick. If it doesn't, the proper procedure is to go back to the hydrant and flush the line again until a satisfactory test result can be obtained. But city records show that in more than two dozen cases during June and July, follow-up tests still showed substandard results. If residents were notified that a problem still existed that might compromise the safety of their tap water, there was no mention of it on the reports. Instead, the workers seem to have simply gone on their way. "They just said that they had opened [the line] and cleared it out," says Monica Reyes, a Northside resident whose follow-up test showed zero chlorine residual.
Though a little scum, a few hundred extra complaints and a batch of substandard test results aren't enough to draw any sweeping conclusions, other evidence indicates that the city's water quality may be slipping.
Richard Steadman, the superintendent of water and wastewater operations for a Harris County utility district, buys water from the city and redistributes it to the district's customers in the Channelview area. This summer, Steadman says, the quality has taken a dive. "It's not a constant, stable water supply," he says. "We don't know what we're going to get day by day."
Steadman himself has been having to treat the water to get it to pass muster. "Trying to maintain my chlorine residual is the problem," he explains. "We weren't getting any residual at all."
"I want a guaranteed product so I don't have to make changes when I purchase that product," states Steadman. "They are not treating the water satisfactorily at this time."
Public Works Department director Jerry King says that being competitive in the marketplace has its advantages, but not at the expense of more important issues. "The big thing is the service and the quality," King says. "We try to save money and be efficient, but the service still comes first."
King recognizes that a better place to cut than front-line personnel and water treatment would be redundant upper- and midlevel managers, but he also knows -- as well as anyone, given his agency -- the political realities of trying to unload bureaucratic deadwood. But even if the Water Production Branch makes inroads, the pressure to privatize will at the very least carve away bits and pieces of the system. The Southeast plant has been in private hands since the Whitmire administration, and King guesses that the new Northeast plant will also be farmed out. "I think you can say there'll be a gradual trend in that direction," he says.
Choosing between a wobbly, downsized public utility and a private operator where the profit motive supercedes isn't especially inspiring. If those end up being the only options, citizens may well be creating ever-expanding markets for bottled water.
Or else they'll take the attitude of the North Channel Water Authority, which is the governing body over Richard Steadman's utility district. Steadman says he has had a hard time getting the authority to pass along lab reports from the city so he can monitor the situation. "Their feedback is, 'You probably don't want to know the quality of the water.' "
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