3 Massacres in 12 Days Suspected in Brazilian Amazon
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Violence in the Brazilian countryside is on the rise. In the last two weeks, Amazonia has seen an alarming increase in targeted killings, with three massacres and at least nine deaths. The Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) defines a massacre as a killing involving three or more people.
The most recent killings took place on April 3 in a landless peasant workers' camp near the hamlet of Vila de Mocotó in the Altamira municipal district, in southwest Pará state, near the Belo Monte mega-dam. This is not far from Anapu, where Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked with Amazon landless peasant communities, was murdered in 2005.
The squatters were campaigning for the area to be turned into an officially authorized agrarian land reform settlement. According to unconfirmed reports, military police were attempting to evict the settlers at the behest of a man claiming to own the land. The police were reportedly acting without a judicial order. The action ended with one confirmed death, a member of the military police, Valdenilson Rodrigues da Silva. Some witnesses say there were three other victims, all landless workers.
These killings occurred just four days after four people are believed to have been killed in Seringal São Domingos, in Ponta do Abunã, a remote area in the Lábrea municipal district near the intersection of the borders of the states of Acre, Amazonas and Rondônia, about 150 kilometers (approximately 93 miles) upstream from the Jirau hydroelectric dam. Landless movement squatters, likely traumatized by the violence, remain too afraid to speak openly, but it is believed that many other people remain missing.
According to information provided by the Military Police, four hooded and armed men arrived in Seringal São Domingos and told the families living there they must leave their homes. The squatters' leader, 53-year-old Nemis Machado de Oliveira, was reportedly shot dead. The gunmen then expelled the other squatters by firing shots into the air and burning their homes.
Since 2016, about 140 families have been living in Seringal São Domingos, an old rubber plantation, surviving on rubber tapping and subsistence farming.
Vigil in Salvador Allende Camp in memory of those recently killed
Image courtesy of Outras Midias
The region has a long history of conflict, involving land grabbers, farmers and loggers. One of the most notorious murders occurred in May 2011 when Adelino Ramos, known as Dinho — a leader of the landless peasant movement (Movimento dos Sem Terra, or MST) — was murdered while selling vegetables he had grown in his settlement, which was officially recognized by INCRA (the federal government's National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform). Dinho had survived the 1995 Corumbiara massacre, when eight people were killed and hundreds wounded. At the time of his murder, Dinho was active in denouncing illegal loggers along the Acre, Amazonas and Rondônia frontier.
These two cases, which may upon investigation turn up a larger number of victims than initially confirmed, both came on the heels of another massacre. On 22 March, Dilma Ferreira Silva, a socio-environmental activist leader with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), her husband and a friend, were killed by hooded motorcyclists in the Baião municipal district about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Tucuruí dam in Pará state. They were assassinated inside the family home; Dilma had her throat slit after watching her husband and friend killed.
Murdered activist Dilma Ferreira Silva, a socio-environmental leader with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB)
Image courtesy of the Movimentos dos Atingidos ppr Barragens
Two days later three burnt bodies were found on a cattle ranch just 14 kilometers (approximately 9 miles) from the Salvador Allende settlement where Dilma and the other two victims lived. The three new victims were identified as Marlete da Silva Oliveira and Raimundo de Jesus Ferreira, who looked after the ranch, and Venilson da Silva Santos, who worked there as a tractor driver.
The man alleged to have organized both sets of killings is Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, known as Fernandinho, who has a reputation locally as a dangerous bandit. He is now being investigated by police with respect to all six execution-style killings. The Pastoral Land Commission, which monitors rural violence, considers the two incidents to be part of the same massacre, largely because of the alleged involvement of Fernandinho in both.
According to the police, witnesses said that the three ranch employees were considering taking legal action against their employer for not respecting their labor rights. The ranch owner has also been accused of building a clandestine landing strip to facilitate drug trafficking. Local reports suggest that he may have wished to get rid of independently-minded employees. According to the Secretariat of Public Security and Social Defense in Pará state, the crimes are being investigated as an "execution," but police have not established the motive or found the killers — typical of such attacks in the Amazon.
Map showing the location of recent attacks as related to hydroelectric dams, deforested areas and agrarian reform settlements
Map by Mauricio Torres for Mongabay
What Do These Criminal Acts Have in Common?
The three attacks on activists involved in social movements or rural workers' organizations have three characteristics in common: they all occurred in areas within the influence of a large hydroelectric dam; they all happened near or within an agrarian reform settlement; and all are located along one of Amazonia's primary deforestation fronts (see map 1).
Vila de Mocotó, for example, is located just 28 kilometers (approximately 17 miles) from the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. The construction of this dam, the third largest in the world and operational in 2016, led to a massive injection of capital into a rural region that was ill-prepared to receive it. Unsurprisingly, this led to the overheating of the real estate market, sparking a stampede to buy or steal land.
Today, land prices are rising even higher in the Xingu basin, as the right-wing Bolsonaro government signals the relaxation of environmental regulations and the fast tracking of large-scale projects, such as the giant proposed gold mine that the Canadian mining company, Belo Sun, wants to open near Belo Monte.
As a result, land thieves and illegal loggers are moving rapidly into the nearby Ituna/Itatá indigenous territory. Satellite monitoring and analysis of the territory shows that the number of illegal invasions there has increased enormously since 2017; that's based on observations by SIRAD-X (Xingu Basin Deforestation Radar System) which uses data provided by the European Space Agency's Sentinel-1 satellite.
In March of this year, SIRAD-X registered the opening of a new illegal road, invading the area from the west (map 2). More deforestation took place in Ituna/Itatá in 2018 than in any other indigenous territory in the Xingu basin. Altogether, 6,785 hectares (16,766 acres) were cleared, a huge increase in illegal cutting. In this single year, almost twice as much forest was felled as the sum total of all deforestation happening there in previous years.
A portion of the Xingu River basin showing the proximity of a recent massacre, agrarian reform settlements, a new illegal road into the Ituna/Itatá indigenous territory, the Belo Monte dam and the proposed Belo Sun gold mine (which would be the largest in Brazil)
Map by Mauricio Torres
The Ituna/Itatá territory is particularly vulnerable because it is not an officially demarcated indigenous territory. Rather, it is an area that has been "interdicted," where the entry of non-indigenous people has been banned to protect isolated Indians known to be living there. Although anthropologists have gathered convincing evidence of the existence of these indigenous inhabitants, they have not been contacted. As a result, they are clearly unable to organize to drive out intruders, and are entirely dependent on the government for protection.
The edict authorizing the "interdiction" must be reissued every three years. However, due to President Bolsonaro's campaign promise "that not another centimeter of land" will be given to indigenous groups, land thieves apparently became confident that the government would not renew the Ituna/Itatá territory edict, making the 142,000 hectare (approximately 548 square mile) area available to them.
But on Jan. 9 of this year — at the very start of the Bolsonaro Administration— FUNAI, the indigenous agency, unexpectedly renewed the edict for another three years. The land cannot be sold by land thieves while it is still designated as indigenous territory, but even so, deforestation seems likely to continue.
According to a researcher who prefers to speak off the record for safety reasons, "the deforestation within the indigenous territory is the result of a struggle between at least two groups of land thieves. Despite the renewal of the edict, they remain confident they will eventually get their hands on this land and, if the current rhythm of deforestation continues, it is very likely that, along with the heavy loss of forest, the isolated Indians will be exterminated."
Much of the Xingu basin is now immersed in a similar climate of lawlessness. Details of the camp massacre near Vila de Mocotó are as yet unknown, but the scenario fits in with a historic pattern of land conflicts occurring in the region. According to the unnamed researcher, "A big infrastructure project overheats the real estate market, peasant families and traditional communities are violently evicted by land thieves, who then deforest the area and then sell it to big mining and farming projects."
The Jirau dam cuts across the Madeira River in western Brazil. Its construction, like that of the Belo Monte dam, the Tucuruí dam, and other large Amazon dams, resulted in an upsurge in rural property values, leading to rampant land speculation, exploited by land grabbers, often leading to violence.
Image courtesy of Monitoring the Andean Amazon Project
Conflict Along the Madeira Deforestation Front
The situation is not much different in Ponta do Abunã, located on the Madeira River about 2,000 kilometers (approximately 1,240 miles) to the west of Belo Monte on another deforestation front.
It is here that Nemis Machado de Oliveira, the leader of the Seringal São Domingos community, was killed. According to a Sustainable Amazonia Plan (Plano Amazônia Sustentável) report, produced by Brazil's Ministry of the Environment, peasant families in this region are being evicted from their settlements to make way for big cattle ranches. Land seizures gained momentum after 2013 when the controversial Jirau dam became operational. That mega-dam has been heavily criticized by environmentalists and activists for harm done to indigenous communities, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
Now a nearly kilometer-long (approximately 3,000-foot) bridge is being constructed across the Madeira River at Ponta do Abunã, about 150 kilometers (approximately 93 miles) upstream from the Jirau dam. Due to be completed this year, the bridge will extend the BR-364 highway into the state of Acre. Experts fear that the new road will lead to heightened land speculation and possibly to violence.
Local businessmen remain very enthusiastic: "The bridge over the Madeira River at Ponta do Abunã is a very important project," said Marcelo Thomé, president of the Federation of Industries in the State of Rondônia (FIERO). "It will connect Acre state to the national road network, permitting more development for states in the north [of Brazil], particularly Rondônia ... It is a big step in linking Brazil with the Pacific."
Brazil has multiple plans for a transcontinental railway, with one proposed route slated to cross Acre and Rondônia. The coast-to-coast railroad would allow Brazil to significantly reduce costs of commodity shipments to China, though conservationists fear it would be a death knell for Amazonian forests, indigenous and traditional ways of life.
The other massacre – the killing of Dilma Ferreira Silva and two others – in the municipal district of Baião lies within the area of influence of the Tucuruí dam, a project initiated by the military government and completed in 1984. Inhabitants affected by the dam are still fighting 35 years later for compensation, and the region, suffering from heavy deforestation, regularly sees a high level of violence.
If the deaths of at least six peasants in the two most recent attacks are confirmed, Brazil will have achieved an historic record — three massacres in less than two weeks.
In response to the increased rural violence, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) has launched a new website: Massacres in the Countryside. That page will be updated with newly confirmed reports of massacres — a killing involving three or more people. Between 1985 and 2017, CPT recorded 45 massacres in which 214 people in nine states were killed. Pará state saw the largest number of massacres over this period — 26 in all, in which 125 people were killed, over half of the victims in all of the massacres.
Jair Bolsonaro pretending to shoot a gun, a gesture suggestive of violence that the former Army captain often uses in his speeches and television appearances
Image by Carlos Eugênio
Bolsonaro Ignores Increase in Rural Violence
The federal government has so far not condemned the rise in violence that has occurred since Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January.
When Mongabay asked the government's National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian reform (INCRA) for a comment, it replied with a statement: "With respect to the deaths mentioned, it is necessary to wait for the results of the police enquiries to see if they are related to agrarian conflicts."
On taking office, President Bolsonaro moved INCRA, which used to be attached to the presidency, to the Agriculture Ministry, which some analysts say is a conflict of interest. INCRA is now headed by a military officer, General Jesus Corrêa. He said after his appointment that his aim was to remove "bad yolks without breaking the eggs." Social movements interpreted this to be an expression of his determination to root out landless movement activists from the settlements. At the time this story went to press, the Ministry of Justice had not responded to Mongabay's request for comment.
Isolete Wichinieski, CPT's national coordinator, was not surprised by the administration's failure to issue a public statement on the wave of killings: "The government's position with respect to the countryside is that there are no conflicts, or the conflicts are created by the communities," she told Mongabay. "And their solution is to criminalize the social movements, not to resolve the land conflict."
Wichinieski does not believe the government is open to dialogue: "It is working in the opposite direction, freeing up the use of arms, opening up the forest to capital, opposing any policies for resolving the conflict."
To judge by the comments made by Bolsonaro a year before the elections, the best that social movements might expect from his government is to be ignored. "If it depends on me, [large scale] farmers are going to receive the MST [landless movement] by discharging the cartridge of a 762," he said, referring to a gun using 7.62mm ammunition. Just to be clear, he added: "If you ask if this means that I want to kill these layabouts, yes I do."
Brazil Moves to Open #Indigenous Lands to #Mining PLEASE RETWEET https://t.co/meCZe6CQSR— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1552735990.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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