Duke Study: Rivers Contaminated With Radium and Lead From Thousands of Fracking Wastewater Spills
Thousands of oil and gas industry wastewater spills in North Dakota have caused “widespread” contamination from radioactive materials, heavy metals and corrosive salts, putting the health of people and wildlife at risk, researchers from Duke University concluded in a newly released peer-reviewed study.
Some rivers and streams in North Dakota now carry levels of radioactive and toxic materials higher than federal drinking water standards as a result of wastewater spills, the scientists found after testing near spills. Many cities and towns draw their drinking water from rivers and streams, though federal law generally requires drinking water to be treated before it reaches peoples' homes and the scientists did not test tap water as part of their research.
High levels of lead—the same heavy metal that infamously contaminated water in Flint, Michigan—as well as the radioactive element radium, were discovered near spill sites. One substance, selenium, was found in the state's waters at levels as high as 35 times the federal thresholds set to protect fish, mussels and other wildlife, including those that people eat.
The pollution was found on land as well as in water. The soils in locations where wastewater spilled were laced with significant levels of radium and even higher levels of radium were discovered in the ground downstream from the spills' origin points, showing that radioactive materials were soaking into the ground and building up as spills flowed over the ground, the researchers said.
The sheer number of spills in the past several years is striking. All told, the Duke University researchers mapped out a total of more than 3,900 accidental spills of oil and gas wastewater in North Dakota alone.
Contamination remained at the oldest spill site tested, where roughly 300 barrels of wastewater were released in a spill four years before the team of researchers arrived to take samples, demonstrating that any cleanup efforts at the site had been insufficient.
“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a Duke University PhD student who was lead author of the study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “They don't go away; they stay.”
“This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites,” she said.
The highest level of radium the scientists found in soil measured more than 4,600 Bequerels per kilogram [bq/kg]—which translates to roughly two and half times the levels of fracking-related radioactive contamination discovered in Pennsylvania in a 2013 report that drew national attention. To put those numbers in context, under North Dakota law, waste more than 185 bq/kg is considered too radioactive to dispose in regular landfills without a special permit or to haul on roads without a specific license from the state.
And that radioactive contamination—in some places more than 100 times the levels of radioactivity as found upstream from the spill—will be here to stay for millennia, the researchers concluded, unless unprecedented spill clean-up efforts are made.
“The results of this study indicate that the water contamination from brine spills is remarkably persistent in the environment, resulting in elevated levels of salts and trace elements that can be preserved in spill sites for at least months to years,” the study concluded. “The relatively long half-life of [Radium 226] (∼1600 years) suggests that [Radium] contamination in spill sites will remain for thousands of years.”
Cleanup efforts remain underway at three of the four sites that the Duke University research team sampled, a North Dakota State Health Department official asked to comment on the research told the Bismarck Tribune, while the fourth site had not yet been addressed. He criticized the researchers for failing to include any in-depth testing of sites where the most extensive types of cleanup efforts had been completed.
The four sites the researchers sampled instead included the locations of two of the biggest spills in the state's history, including a spill of 2.9 million gallons in January 2015 and two areas where smaller spills occurred in 2011. The samples from the sites were collected in June 2015, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Over the past decade, roughly 9,700 wells have been drilled in North Dakota's Bakken shale and Bottineu oilfield region—meaning that there has been over one spill reported to regulators for every three wells drilled.
“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said when the study was released. “In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking.”
Dealing with wastewater generated by drilling and fracking has proved to be one of the shale industry's most intractable problems. The industry often pumps its toxic waste underground in a process known as wastewater injection. Every day, roughly 2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater are injected into the ground nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Wastewater injection has been linked to swarms of earthquakes that have prompted a series of legal challenges.
The sheer volume of waste generated by the industry—particularly from the type of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing used to tap shale oil and gas—has often overwhelmed state regulators, especially because federal laws leave the waste exempt from hazardous waste handling laws, no matter how toxic or dangerous it might be, under an exception for the industry carved out in the 1980's.
This leaves policing fracking waste up to state inspectors and not only do the rules vary widely from state to state, but enforcing those rules brings its own difficulties.
State inspectors have faced escalating workloads as budgets have often failed to keep pace with the industry's rapid expansion. In North Dakota, the number of wells per inspector climbed from roughly 359 each in 2012 to 500 per inspector last year. In other states, the ratios are even more challenging, with Wyoming oil and gas well inspectors being responsible for more than 2,900 wells in 2015. And now, with the collapse of oil and gas prices, funds earmarked for oil and gas inspection have also nosedived in many states.
Lax enforcement may help explain why wastewater spills are so common across the U.S. More than 180 million gallons of wastewater was spilled between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, which tallied the amount of wastewater spilled in the 21,651 accidents that were reported to state or federal regulators nationwide during that time.
The naturally occurring radioactive materials in that wastewater have drawn particular concern, partly because of their longevity in the environment and partly because the drilling industry enjoys looser federal standards for their radioactive waste than many other industries.
In January, North Dakota regulators further relaxed their standards for the dumping of radioactive materials, allowing many landfills in the state to accept drilling waste at levels higher than previously permitted, citing tough economic times for drillers.
But environmentalists argue that relaxing the rules for radioactive waste disposal could mean that radioactive materials receive less careful handling. “If people think this study points to a building tragedy, just wait,” Darrell Dorgan, who chairs the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, told the Bismarck Tribune, when the Duke University research was released. “The new rules allow radioactive waste that is 10 times more dangerous.”
The spills the Duke University researchers identified often resulted from a failure to maintain infrastructure including pipelines and storage tanks. Roughly half of the wastewater spilled came from failed pipelines, followed by leaks from valves and other pipe connectors and then tank leaks or overflows.
But recent floods in Texas's Eagle Ford shale region also highlight the risks that natural disasters in drilling regions might pose. Texas regulators photographed plumes of contamination around submerged drilling sites, a repeat of similar incidents in Colorado. “That’s a potential disaster,” Dr. Walter Tsou, former president of the American Public Health Association told the Dallas Morning News.
Risks associated with fracking in flood zones have drawn the attention of some federal agencies in the past, but perhaps not in a way that locals in affected areas might find helpful.
In 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program—a program designed to help people move away from areas subject to recurring floods—ran into a series of conflicts over oil and gas leases on properties that would otherwise be offered buy-outs. Some homeowners in Pennsylvania were denied the chance to participate in the program because of oil and gas leases or pipelines on their properties, as DeSmog previously reported.
In other words, it may be harder for those who have signed oil and gas or pipeline leases to abandon flood-prone areas, meaning that homeowners whose properties frequently flood could potentially face battles over cleanup costs without aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And the newly published research from North Dakota suggests that the less visible brines may ultimately be more of a long-lasting environmental hazard than the spilled oil.
Even though their study included only leaks that were reported to state regulators, the researchers warned that little is currently being done to clean up sites where spills have occurred—or even to track smaller spills, especially on reservation lands, where roughly a quarter of the state's oil is produced.
This means that the real amount of wastewater spilled is likely even higher than currently reported.
“Many smaller spills have also occurred on tribal lands,” Prof. Vengosh said, “and as far as we know, no one is monitoring them.”
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By Gavin Naylor
Sharks elicit outsized fear, even though the risk of a shark bite is infinitesimally small. As a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, I oversee the International Shark Attack File – a global record of reported shark bites that has been maintained continuously since 1958.
A Big, Diverse Family<p>Not all sharks are the same. Only a dozen or so of the roughly 520 shark species pose any risk to people. Even the three species that account for almost all shark bite fatalities – the <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharodon-carcharias/" target="_blank">white shark</a> (<em>Carcharodon carcharias</em>), <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/galeocerdo-cuvier/" target="_blank">tiger shark</a> (<em>Galeocerdo cuvier</em>) and <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharhinus-leucas/" target="_blank">bull shark</a> (<em>Carcharhinus leucas</em>) – are behaviorally and evolutionarily very different from one another.</p><p>The tiger shark and bull shark are genetically as different from each other as a dog is from a rabbit. And both of these species are about as different from a white shark as a dog is from a kangaroo. The evolutionary lineages leading to the two groups split 170 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs and before the origin of birds, and <a href="https://www.ck12.org/book/CK-12-Human-Biology/section/7.2/" target="_blank">110 million years before the origin of primates</a>.</p>
White, tiger and bull sharks are distinct species that diverged genetically tens of millions of years ago. Gavin Naylor / CC BY-ND<p>Yet many people assume all sharks are alike and equally likely to bite humans. Consider the term "shark attack," which is scientifically equivalent to "mammal attack." Nobody would equate dog bites with hamster bites, but this is exactly what we do when it comes to sharks.</p><p>So, when a reporter calls me about a fatality caused by a white shark off Cape Cod and asks my advice for beachgoers in North Carolina, it's essentially like asking, "A man was killed by a dog on Cape Cod. What precautions should people take when dealing with kangaroos in North Carolina?"</p>
Know Your Species<p>Understanding local species' behavior and life habits is one of the best ways to stay safe. For example, almost all shark bites that occur off Cape Cod are by white sharks, which are a large, primarily cold-water species that spend most of their time in isolation feeding on fishes. But they also aggregate near seal colonies that provide a reliable food source at certain times of the year.</p><p>Shark bites in the Carolinas are by warm-water species like bull sharks, tiger sharks and <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/carcharhinus-limbatus/" target="_blank">blacktips</a> (<em>Carcharhinus limbatus</em>). Each species is associated with particular habitats and dietary preferences.</p><p>Blacktips, which we suspect are responsible for most relatively minor bites on humans in the southeastern United States, feed on schooling bait fishes like menhaden. In contrast, bull sharks are equally at home in fresh water and salt water, and are often found near estuaries. Their bites are more severe than those of blacktips, as they are larger, more powerful, bolder and more tenacious. Several fatalities have been ascribed to bull sharks.</p><p>Tiger sharks are also large, and are responsible for a significant fraction of fatalities, particularly off the coast of volcanic islands like Hawaii and Reunion. They are tropical animals that often venture into shallow water frequented by swimmers and surfers.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1cfa1c9590e386ecc9455b4762b87518"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/yDqzGOa-adc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Humans Are Not Targets<p>Sharks do not "hunt" humans. Data from the International Shark Attack File compiled over the past 60 years show a tight association between shark bites and the number of people in the water. In other words, shark bites are a simple function of the probability of encountering a shark.</p><p>This underscores the fact that shark bites are almost always cases of mistaken identity. If sharks actively hunted people, there would be many more bites, since humans make very easy targets when they swim in sharks' natural habitats.</p><p>Local conditions can also affect the risk of an attack. Encounters are more likely when sharks venture closer to shore, into areas where people are swimming. They may do this because they are following bait fishes or seals upon which they prey.</p><p>This means we can use environmental variables such as temperature, tide or weather conditions to better predict movement of bait fish toward the shoreline, which in turn will predict the presence of sharks. Over the next few years, the Florida Program for Shark Research will work with colleagues at other universities to monitor onshore and offshore movements of tagged sharks and their association with environmental variables so that we can improve our understanding of what conditions bring sharks close to shore.</p>
More to Know<p>There still is much to learn about sharks, especially the 500 or so species that have never been implicated in a bite on humans. One example is the tiny <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/one-worlds-rarest-sharks-also-one-most-adorable-325280" target="_blank">deep sea pocket shark</a>, which has a strange pouch behind its pectoral fins.</p><p>Only two specimens of this type of shark have ever been caught – one off the coast of Chile 30 years ago, and another more recently in the Gulf of Mexico. We're not sure about the function of the pouch, but suspect it stores luminous fluid that is released to distract would-be predators – much as its close relative, the <a href="https://sharkdevocean.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/second-ever-pocket-shark-discovered-in-gulf-of-mexico/" target="_blank">tail light shark</a>, releases luminous fluid from a gland on its underside near its vent.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5783b39d0838d6e410344a852ed0dcc3"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UTO5debfmsg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Sharks range in form from the bizarre <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/mitsukurina-owstoni/" target="_blank">goblin shark</a> (<em>Mitsukurina owstoni</em>), most commonly encountered in Japan, to the gentle filter-feeding <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/rhincodon-typus/" target="_blank">whale shark</a> (<em>Rhincodon typus</em>). Although whale sharks are the largest fishes in the world, we have yet to locate their nursery grounds, which are likely teeming with thousands of <a href="https://www.earthtouchnews.com/oceans/sharks/baby-whale-shark-rescued-from-gillnet-in-india-video/" target="_blank">foot-long pups</a>. Some deepwater sharks are primarily known from submersibles, such as the giant <a href="https://twitter.com/gavinnaylor/status/1146144452681113601" target="_blank">sixgill shark</a>, which feeds mainly on carrion but probably also preys on other animals in the deep sea.</p><p>Sharks seem familiar to almost all of us, but we know precious little about them. Our current understanding of their biology barely scratches the surface. The little we do know suggests they are profoundly different from other vertebrate animals. They've had 400 million years of independent evolution to adapt to their environments, and it's reasonable to expect they may be hiding more than a few tricks up their gills.</p>
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Known and anticipated changes in species distribution due to climate change around the world have implications for culture, society ecosystems, governance and climate change. Figure used with permission from Gretta T. Pecl, originally published on 31 Mar 2017 in Science 355(6332).<p>How we define species is critical, because these definitions influence perceptions, policy and management. The U.S. National Invasive Species Council (NISC) defines a biological invasion as "the process by which non-native species breach biogeographical barriers and extend their range" and states that "preventing the introduction of potentially harmful organisms is … the first line of defense." But some say excluding newcomers is myopic.</p><p>"If you were trying to maintain the status quo, so every time a new species comes in, you chuck it out," says Camille Parmesan, director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, you could gradually "lose so many that that ecosystem will lose its coherence." If climate change is driving native species extinct, she says, "you need to allow new ones coming in to take over those same functions."</p><p>As University of Florida conservation ecologist Brett Scheffers and Pecl warned in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0526-5" target="_blank">2019 paper in <em>Nature Climate Change</em></a>, "past management of redistributed species … has yielded mixed actions and results." They concluded that "we cannot leave the fate of biodiversity critical to human survival to be randomly persecuted, protected or ignored."</p>
Existing Tools<p>One approach to managing these climate-driven habitat shifts, suggested by University of California, Irvine marine ecologist Piper Wallingford and colleagues in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0768-2" target="_blank">a recent issue of Nature Climate Change</a>, is for scientists to adapt existing tools like the <a href="https://www.iucn.org/theme/species/our-work/invasive-species/eicat" target="_blank">Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT)</a> to assess potential risks associated with moving species. Because range-shifting species pose impacts to communities similar to those of species introduced by humans, the authors argue, new management strategies are unnecessary, and each new arrival can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.</p><p>Karen Lips, a professor of biology at University of Maryland who was not associated with the study, echoes the idea that each case is so varied and nuanced that trying to fit climate shifting species into a single category with broad management goals may be impractical. "Things may be fine today, but add a new mosquito vector or add a new tick or a new disease, and all of a sudden things spiral out of control," she says. "The nuance means that the answer to any particular problem might be pretty different."</p>
In recent years, northern flying squirrels in Canada have found themselves in the company of new neighbors — southern flying squirrels expanding their range as the climate warms. Public Domain / USFW<p>Laura Meyerson, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island says scientists should use existing tools to identify and address invasive species to deal with climate-shifting species. "I would like to operate under the precautionary principle and then reevaluate as things shift. You're sort of shifting one piece in this machinery; as you insert a new species into a system, everything is going to respond," she says. "Will some of the species that are expanding their ranges because of climate change become problematic? Perhaps they might."</p><p>The reality is that some climate-shifting species may be harmful to some conservation or economic goals while being helpful to others. While sport fisherman are excited about red snapper moving down the East Coast of Australia, for example, if they eat juvenile lobsters in Tasmania they could harm this environmentally and economically important crustacean. "At the end of the day … you're going to have to look at whether that range expansion has some sort of impact and presumably be more concerned about the negative impacts," says NISC executive director Stas Burgiel. "Many of the [risk assessment] tools we have are set up to look at negative impact." As a result, positive effects may be deemphasized or overlooked. "So that notion of cost versus benefit … I don't think it has played out in this particular context."</p>
Location, Location, Location<p>In a <a href="https://www-nature-com.ezp3.lib.umn.edu/articles/s41558-020-0770-8" target="_blank">companion paper</a> to Wallingford's, University of Connecticut ecology and evolutionary biology associate professor Mark Urban stressed key differences between invasive species, which are both non-native and harmful, and what he calls "climate tracking species." Whereas invasive species originate from places very unlike the communities they overtake, he says, climate tracking species expand from largely similar environments, seeking to follow preferred conditions as these environments move. For example, an American pika may relocate to a higher mountain elevation, or a marbled salamander might expand its New England range northward to seek cooler temperatures, but these new locations are not drastically different than the places they had called home before.</p><p>Climate tracking species may move faster than their competitors at first, Urban says, but competing species will likely catch up. "Applying perspectives from invasion biology to climate-tracking species … arbitrarily chooses local winners over colonizing losers," he writes.</p>
The marbled salamander, a native of the eastern U.S., is among species whose range could expand northward to accommodate rising temperatures. Seánín Óg / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>Urban stresses that if people prevent range shifts, some climate-tracking species may have nowhere to go. He suggests that humans should even <a href="https://ensia.com/features/time-for-trees-to-pack-their-trunks/" target="_blank">facilitate movement</a> as the planet warms. "The goal in this crazy warming world is to keep everything alive. But it may not be in the same place," Urban says.</p><p>Parmesan echoes Urban, emphasizing it's the distance that makes the difference. "[Invasives] come from a different continent or a different ocean. You're having these enormous trans-global movements and that's what ends up causing the species that's exotic to be invasive," she says. "Things moving around with climate change is a few hundred miles. Invasive species are moving a few thousand miles."</p><p>In 2019 University of Vienna conservation biology associate professor Franz Essl published a similar argument for species classification beyond the native/non-native dichotomy. Essl uses "neonatives" to refer to species that have expanded outside their native areas and established populations because of climate change but not direct human agency. He argues that these species should be considered as native in their new range.</p>
They Never Come Alone<p>Meyerson calls for caution. "I don't think we should be introducing species" into ecosystems, she says. "I mean, they never come alone. They bring all their friends, their microflora, and maybe parasites and things clinging to their roots or their leaves. … It's like bringing some mattress off the street into your house."</p><p>Burgiel warns that labeling can have unintended consequences. We in the invasive species field … focus on non-native species that cause harm," he says. "Some people think that anything that's not native is invasive, which isn't necessarily the case." Because resources are limited and land management and conservation are publicly funded, Burgiel says, it is critical that the public understands how the decisions are being made.</p><p>Piero Genovesi, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Invasive Species Specialist Group, sees the debate about classification — and therefore about management — as a potential distraction from more pressing conservation issues.</p><p>"The real bulk of conservation is that we want to focus on the narrow proportion of alien species that are really harmful," he says. In Hawaii "we don't discuss species that are there [but aren't] causing any problem because we don't even have the energy for dealing with them all. And I can tell you, no one wants to remove [non-native] cypresses from Tuscany. So, I think that some of the discussions are probably not so real in the work that we do in conservation."</p><p>Indigenous frameworks offer another way to look at species searching for a new home in the face of climate change. According to <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11625-018-0571-4" target="_blank">a study</a> published in Sustainability Science in 2018 by Dartmouth Native American studies and environmental studies associate professor Nicholas Reo, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Dartmouth anthropology associate professor Laura Ogden, some Anishnaabe people view plants as persons and the arrival of new plants as a natural form of migration, which is not inherently good or bad. They may seek to discover the purpose of new species, at times with animals as their teachers. In their paper Reo and Ogden quote Anishnaabe tribal chairman Aaron Payment as saying, "We are an extension of our natural environment; we're not separate from it."</p>
The Need for Collaboration<p>The successful conservation of Earth's species in a way that keeps biodiversity functional and healthy will likely depend on collaboration. Without global agreements, one can envision scenarios in which countries try to impede high-value species from moving beyond their borders, or newly arriving species are quickly overharvested.</p><p>In Nature Climate Change, Sheffers and Pecl call for a Climate Change Redistribution Treaty that would recognize species redistribution beyond political boundaries and establish governance to deal with it. Treaties already in place, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates trade in wild plants and animals; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; and the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, can help guide these new agreements.</p><p>"We are living through the greatest redistribution of life on Earth for … potentially hundreds of thousands of years, so we definitely need to think about how we want to manage that," Pecl says.</p><p>Genovesi agrees that conservationists need a vision for the future. "What we do is more to be reactive [to known threats]. … It's so simple to say that destroying the Amazon is probably not a good idea that you don't need to think of a step ahead of that." But, he adds, "I don't think we have a real answer in terms of okay, this is a threshold of species, or this is the temporal line where we should aim to." Defining a vision for what success would look like, Genovesi says, "is a question that hasn't been addressed enough by science and by decision makers."</p><p>At the heart of these questions are values. "All of these perceptions around what's good and what's bad, all [are based on] some kind of value system," Pecl says. "As a whole society, we haven't talked about what we value and who gets to say what's of value and what isn't."</p><p>This is especially important when it comes to marginalized voices, and Pecl says she is concerned because she doesn't "think we have enough consideration or representation of Indigenous worldviews." Reo and colleagues <a href="https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.dartmouth.edu/dist/9/52/files/2012/10/Reo_etal_AIQ_invasive_species_2017.pdf" target="_blank">wrote in American Indian Quarterly in 2017</a> that climate change literature and media coverage tend to portray native people as vulnerable and without agency. Yet, says Pecl, "The regions of the world where [biodiversity and ecosystems] are either not declining or are declining at a much slower rate are Indigenous controlled" — suggesting that Indigenous people have potentially managed species more effectively in the past, and may be able to manage changing species distributions in a way that could be informative to others working on these issues.</p><p>Meanwhile, researchers such as Lips see species classification as native or other as stemming from a perspective that there is a better environmental time and place to return to. "There is no pristine, there's no way to go back," says Lips. "The entire world is always very dynamic and changing. And I think it's a better idea to consider just simply what is it that we do want, and let's work on that."</p>
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