Government Scientists at Climate Conference Terrified to Speak With the Press
By Sharon Lerner
While Donald Trump was reviving both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, muzzling federal employees, freezing EPA contracts and first telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove mentions of climate change from its website—and then reversing course—many of the scientists who work on climate change in federal agencies were meeting just a few miles from the White House to present and discuss their work.
The mood was understandably gloomy at the National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy, and the Environment. "I don't know what's going to happen. No one knows what's going to happen," one EPA staffer who works on climate issues told me on Tuesday, as she ate her lunch. She had spent much of her time in recent weeks trying to preserve and document the methane-related projects she's been working on for years. But the prevailing sense was that, Trump's claims about being an environmentalist notwithstanding, the president is moving forward with his plan to eviscerate environmental protections, particularly those related to climate change and the EPA itself.
#Trump's War on #Science Sparks Massive Resistance https://t.co/1Zgu6zhYGY @ScienceMarchDC @MichaelEMann @BillNye @billmckibben @SierraClub— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1485439425.0
"It's strange," the woman said. "People keep walking up to me and giving me hugs." Like several others I spoke to for this story, she declined to tell me her name out of fear that she might suffer retaliation, including being fired. She was not being paranoid. Already, agency higher ups had warned the EPA staff against talking to the press or even updating blogs or issuing news releases. "Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press," said one EPA missive that was shared broadly and ended up in the press. And while the staffer was at the meeting, the EPA's new brass issued another memo to staff requiring all regional offices to submit a list of external meetings and presentations, noting which might be controversial and why.
The directives have left scientists fearing reprisal for merely mentioning the global crisis that has been at the center of their professional lives for years. It's the topic "whose name cannot be uttered," as one Forest Service employee put it to me. A nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture employee offered a series of euphemisms—"extreme weather events, very unusual patterns," he riffed—before turning serious. "I'm actually scared to talk to you," he said, turning his hanging name tag inward and backing away from me. The look in his eyes and the tight smiles I received from several federal employees after introducing myself as a reporter reminded me of interviewing scientists in China. My presence inspired fear.
Afraid or not, many federal researchers continued doing their jobs despite the impending doom, presenting research on everything from disease-causing mosquitos to heat waves, decreasing water availability and toxic algal blooms—all issues that have become dramatically more important as the Earth has warmed.
With the dark political backdrop, the hub of productive energy at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the EPA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, brought to mind a cartoon character whose feet continue to frantically pedal in the air even after he's gone off the cliff.
Among the meeting's attendees, who included researchers from academia, the private sector and government, there was no discussion of whether climate change is real, no tangled Kremlin-speak suggesting that "the ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue," as Scott Pruitt, Trump's nominee to head the EPA, put it in his confirmation hearing last week.
Instead the scientists were focused on the measurable and indisputable changes they've observed—how habitat changes have resulted in epidemics of plague in prairie dogs that can spread the disease to humans, for instance or the way that algal blooms on lakes have impacted the fishing industry. Indeed, the breadth of the climate science at the conference spoke to the absurdity that even someone as powerful as the president of the U.S. could undo it. The Senate held its first hearing on climate change more than 30 years ago and in the intervening years, as understanding of our warming planet has grown, the government has not only collected precise measurements of vanishing arctic ice, rising sea levels, increasing global temperatures, river flooding, drought and heavy rain, it has used that data to understand the short- and long-term consequences of the phenomenon.
As a report I picked up at one of the tables, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, makes clear, these many objective phenomena have health consequences "now and in the future." Among those listed were heat-related illness and death, drowning and injuries from flooding, lung and respiratory diseases due to worsening air quality, intestinal illnesses and blood stream infections from water-related infections, water-borne infections and Lyme disease.
That report was a collaboration of 11 federal agencies, including the Departments of Energy, Transportation, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, State and the Interior, many of which have been working on ways to avert and address further disastrous impacts. Scientists have come up with specific plans for disposing of our waste in a hotter world, for instance and have identified people most vulnerable to climate change (such as kids and the elderly). They have calculated and prepared for increased amounts of storm water and developed an integrated heat health information system that includes air quality forecasts and resources for heat waves.
This data visualization shows the record low Arctic sea ice extent on Aug. 26, 2012. With less ice to reflect sunlight, larger areas of open water absorb more of the sun's heat. This heat slowly escapes into the atmosphere, causing atmospheric heating during the Arctic autumn.Scientific Visualization Studio / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
For those who spend their professional lives focusing on this complex web of interconnected phenomena causing and resulting from climate change, denial and the censoring of the term puts them at war with observable reality. Whether they can utter the word "climate" or not, the fire season will still be 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s, as a Forest Service employee pointed out to me. (A 2015 report from the agency confirmed his point). And last year will still have been the hottest year on record, following the one before that and the one before that—knowledge we have thanks to research from NASA and the federal National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.
It's Official: 2016 Was the Hottest Year Ever Recorded https://t.co/E8F4UfbiHj @MichaelEMann @350 @RobertKennedyJr @NRDC @ClimateReality— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484762732.0
The question that hovered over what is likely the last EPA-sponsored conference on environmental and health, at least for a while, was what would happen to all this research as Trump moves forward. In a luncheon keynote speech on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich seemed to acknowledge that the new president would likely cut at least some government funding for environmental research. Gingrich, whose fee for speaking at events in Washington, DC recently increased to $25,000 based on his "insight into Trump," urged scientists to "defend what you do." In his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, Gingrich suggested that environmental scientists not dwell on the imminent decrease in government funding for their work but instead be cheered by the "enormous opportunity" to get private sector funding. The statement elicited a snort of derision from someone at a table near mine.
The extent to which Trump will decimate government efforts to protect people and the planet from climate change and other environmental problems remains to be seen. In the meantime, work continued. At the conference on Wednesday, a young woman gave out publications including a booklet called Science Matters from the EPA's display table. While a nearby giant screen flashed colorful aerial images from NASA satellites of shrinking sea ice in the arctic and global air pollution, she said, "we're just doing our jobs until we hear otherwise."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Intercept.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jim Palardy
As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners — including me — from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.
Ask a Scientist: What Should the Biden Administration and Congress Do to Address the Climate Crisis?
By Elliott Negin
What a difference an election makes. Thanks to the Biden-Harris victory in November, the next administration is poised to make a 180-degree turn to again address the climate crisis.
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By Suresh Dhaniyala and Byron Erath
A fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been found in at least 10 states, and people are wondering: How do I protect myself now?
Airborne Particles Are Still the Biggest Problem<p>The <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-it-matters-that-the-coronavirus-is-changing-and-what-this-means-for-vaccine-effectiveness-152383" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 variants</a> are believed to spread primarily through the air rather than on surfaces.</p><p>When someone with the coronavirus in their respiratory tract coughs, talks, sings or even just breathes, infectious respiratory droplets can be expelled into the air. These droplets are tiny, predominantly in the range of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021850211001200?casa_token=KtyrsEfbeqcAAAAA:vv10sSxm33tzg0EQvNMIFtV7GCu5gE9QAzuyzHKr2_4Cl0OFkUJoGwzn4d0ZnEWS19NsOTuH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1-100 micrometers</a>. For comparison, a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter.</p><p>The larger droplets fall to the ground quickly, rarely traveling farther than 6 feet from the source. The bigger problem for disease transmission is the tiniest droplets – those less than 10 micrometers in diameter – which can remain suspended in the air as aerosols for <a href="https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/50/5/693/325466" target="_blank">hours at a time</a>.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bb67b83dcafe589f350daf3df60fa29d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UNCNM7AZPFg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What Can You Do to Stay Safe?<p>1) Pay attention to the type of face mask you use, and how it fits.</p><p>Most off-the-shelf face coverings are not 100% effective at preventing droplet emission. With the new variant spreading more easily and likely infectious at lower concentrations, it's important to select coverings with materials that are most effective at stopping droplet spread.</p><p>When available, N95 and surgical masks consistently perform the best. Otherwise, face coverings that use <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352431620301802?casa_token=-Dj6nGBAm24AAAAA:qq9BpbzCKaPDFcV73ohA2fCnhE_Zlkss6Bei3kUwq9QYndhHj0Vafbbd-ef_855lx6knDfUt" target="_blank">multiple layers of material</a> are preferable. Ideally, the material should be a tight weave. High thread count cotton sheets are an example. Proper fit is also crucial, as gaps around the nose and mouth can <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.0c03252" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">decrease the effectiveness by 50%</a>.</p><p>2) Follow social distancing guidelines.</p><p>While the current social distancing guidelines are not perfect – <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-a-smoky-bar-can-teach-us-about-the-6-foot-rule-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-145517" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">6 feet isn't always enough</a> – they do offer a useful starting point. Because aerosol concentrations levels and infectivity are highest in the space immediately surrounding anyone with the virus, increasing physical distancing can help reduce risk. Remember that people are infectious <a href="https://medical.mit.edu/faqs/COVID-19#faq-10" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">before they start showing symptoms</a>, and they many never show symptoms, so don't count on seeing signs of illness.</p><p>3) Think carefully about the environment when entering an enclosed area, both the ventilation and how people interact.</p><p>Limiting the size of gatherings helps reduce the potential for exposure. Controlling indoor environments in other ways can also be a highly effective strategy for reducing risk. This includes <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-a-smoky-bar-can-teach-us-about-the-6-foot-rule-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-145517" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increasing ventilation rates</a> to bring in <a href="https://theconversation.com/keeping-indoor-air-clean-can-reduce-the-chance-of-spreading-coronavirus-149512" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fresh air and filtering existing air</a> to dilute aerosol concentrations.</p><p>On a personal level, it is helpful to pay attention to the types of interactions that are taking place. For example, many individuals shouting can create a higher risk than one individual speaking. In all cases, it's important to minimize the amount of time spent indoors with others.</p><p>The CDC has warned that B.1.1.7 could <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7003e2.htm?s_cid=mm7003e2_w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant</a> in the U.S. by March. Other fast-spreading variants have also been found in <a href="https://virological.org/t/genomic-characterisation-of-an-emergent-sars-cov-2-lineage-in-manaus-preliminary-findings/586" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Brazil</a> and <a href="https://www.who.int/csr/don/31-december-2020-sars-cov2-variants/en/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">South Africa</a>. Increased vigilance and complying with health guidelines should continue to be of highest priority.</p>
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By Tara Lohan
A key part of the United States' clean energy transition has started to take shape, but you may need to squint to see it. About 2,000 wind turbines could be built far offshore, in federal waters off the Atlantic Coast, in the next 10 years. And more are expected.
Threats to Birds<p>One of the gravest threats facing birds is climate change, according to Audubon, which found that rising temperatures threaten <a href="https://www.audubon.org/2019climateissue" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nearly two-thirds of North America's bird species</a>. That's why the impending development of offshore wind is a good thing, says Shilo Felton, a field manager in the organization's Clean Energy Initiative, but it also comes with dangers to birds that need to be better studied and mitigated.</p><p>The most obvious risk comes from birds colliding with spinning turbine blades. But offshore wind developments can also displace birds from foraging or roost sites, as well as migratory pathways.</p><p>Along the Atlantic Coast four imperiled species are of top concern to conservationists: the endangered piping plover, red knot, roseate tern and black-capped petrel, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.</p><p>"Those four species are of utmost importance to make sure that we understand the impacts," says Felton. "But beyond that there are many species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act that could potentially see more impacts from offshore wind."</p><p>Northern gannets, for example, are at risk not just for collision but <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308703197_Possible_impacts_of_offshore_wind_farms_on_seabirds_a_pilot_study_in_Northern_Gannets_in_the_southern_North_Sea" target="_blank">habitat displacement</a>.</p>
A northern gannet flying along Cape May, N.J. Ann Marie Morrison / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>"There's <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">some evidence</a> that they just won't use areas where turbines are, but that also excludes them from key foraging areas," says Felton. Researchers are still studying what this may mean for the birds. But a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0141113620305304" target="_blank">study</a> published in December 2020 conducted at Bass Rock, Scotland — home to the world's largest northern gannet colony — found that wind developments could reduce their growth rate, though not enough to cause a population decline.</p><p>Other birds, such as great cormorants and European shags, are <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">attracted to wind developments</a> and use the infrastructure to rest while opening up new foraging areas farther from shore.</p><p>"There's plenty of potential for a bird to use a wind farm and still to avoid the turbines themselves," says Felton.</p><p>Birds like pelicans, however, are less versatile in their movements and are at particular risk of collision because of their flight pattern, she says.</p><p>But how disruptive or dangerous offshore turbines will be along the East Coast isn't yet known.</p><p>Federal and state agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations, says Felton, have done good research to try to better understand those potential impacts. "But these are all theoretical, because we don't have a lot of offshore wind yet in the United States."</p>
Threats to Ocean Life<p>Birds aren't the only wildlife of concern. More development in ocean waters could affect a litany of marine species, some of which are already facing other pressures from overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.</p><p>Scientists have found that marine mammals like whales and dolphins could be disturbed by the jarring sounds of construction, especially if pile driving is used to hammer the steel turbine platform into the seafloor.</p><p>The noises, though short-lived, could impede communication between animals, divert them from migration routes or cause them to seek less suitable areas for feeding or breeding. Research from Europe found that harbor porpoises, seals and dolphins may avoid development areas during construction. In most, but <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045101" target="_blank">not all cases</a>, the animals were believed to have returned to the area following construction.</p><p>The biggest concern for conservation groups in the United States is the critically endangered North American right whale. There are fewer than 400 remaining, and the species' habitat overlaps with a number of planned wind development areas along the East Coast.</p><p>"Offshore wind is in no way the cause of the challenges the whales face, but it's going to be another pressure point," says John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.</p><p>Researchers aren't sure how right whales will respond to the noise from pile driving.</p><p>"But we are concerned, based on what we know about how whales react to other noise sources, that they may avoid [wind development] areas," says Kershaw.</p><p>And if that displacement causes them to miss out on important food resources, it could be dangerous for a species already on the brink.</p><p>There are a few other potential threats, too.</p><p>Ships associated with the development — more plentiful during construction — also pose a danger. In the past few years cargo ships, fishing boats and other vessels have caused half of all deaths of North Atlantic right whales.</p>
A juvenile right whale breaches against the backdrop of a ship near the St. Johns River entrance. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA Research Permit #775-1600-10<p>And after construction, the noise from the spinning turbines will be present in the water at low decibels. "We don't quite know how the great whales will react to those sounds," says Jeremy Firestone, the director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware.</p><p>Other marine mammals may also perceive the noise, but at low decibels it's unlikely to be an impediment, <a href="http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v309/p279-295/" target="_blank">research has found</a>.</p><p>And it's possible that wind development could help some ocean life. Turbine foundations can attract fish and invertebrates for whom hard substrates create habitat complexity — known as the "reef effect," according to researchers from the University of Rhode Island's <a href="https://dosits.org/animals/effects-of-sound/anthropogenic-sources/wind-turbine/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Discovery of Sound in the Sea</a> program. Exclusion of commercial fishing nearby may also help shelter fish and protect marine mammals from entanglements in fishing gear.</p>
Ensuring Safe Development<p>Despite the potential dangers, researchers have gathered a few best practices to help diminish and possibly eliminate some risks.</p><p>When it comes to ship strikes, the easiest thing is to slow boats down, mandating a speed of <a href="https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/vessel-speed-limits-sought-protect-endangered-north-atlantic-right-whales-2020-08-06/" target="_blank">10 knots</a> in wind development areas, and using visual and acoustic monitoring for whales.</p><p>Adjusting operations to reduce boat trips between the shore and the wind development will also help. A new series of service operating vessels can allow maintenance staff to spent multiple days onsite, says Kershaw, cutting down on boat traffic.</p><p>For construction noise concerns, developers can avoid pile driving during times of the year when whales are present. And, depending on the marine environment, developers could use "quiet foundations" that don't require pile driving. These include gravity-based or suction caisson platforms.</p><p>Floating turbines are also used in deep water, where they're effectively anchored in place — although that poses its own potential danger. "We have concerns that marine debris could potentially become entangled around the mooring cables of the floating arrays and pose a secondarily entanglement risk to some species," says Felton, who thinks more research should be conducted before those become operational in U.S. waters — a process that's already underway in Maine, where a <a href="https://composites.umaine.edu/2020/08/05/diamond-offshore-wind-rwe-renewables-join-the-university-of-maine-to-lead-development-of-maine-floating-offshore-wind-demonstration-project/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">demonstration project is being built</a>.</p><p>If loud noises are unavoidable during construction, noise-reducing technologies such as bubble curtains can help dampen the sound. And scheduling adjacent projects to conduct similar work at the same time could limit the duration of disturbances.</p>
The foundation installation of the off shore wind farm Sandbank using a bubble curtain. Vattenfall / Ulrich Wirrwa / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>Once turbines become operational, reducing the amount of light on wind platforms or using flashing lights could help deter some seabirds, NRDC <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/harnessing-wind-advance-wind-power-offshore-ib.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers reported</a>. And scientists are exploring using ultrasonic noises and ultraviolet lighting to keep bats away. "Feathering," or shutting down the turbine blades during key migration times, could also help prevent fatalities.</p><p>"We need to make sure that offshore wind is the best steward it can be of the marine ecosystem, because we want and expect it to be a significant part of the clean energy picture in some parts of the country," says Rogers. "We also have to recognize that we're going to learn by doing, and that some of these things we're going to figure out best once we have more turbines in the water."</p><p>That's why environmental groups say it's important to establish baseline information on species before projects begin, and then require developers to conduct monitoring during construction and for years after projects are operational.</p><p>Employing an "adaptive management framework" will ensure that developers can adjust their management practices as they go when new information becomes available, and that those best practices are incorporated into the requirements for future projects.</p>
Putting Research Into Action<p>Advancing these conversations at the federal level during the Trump administration, though, has been slow going.</p><p>"We didn't really have any productive discussions with the administration in the last four years," says Kershaw.</p><p>And when it comes to birds, Felton says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's recently completed "draft cumulative environmental impact statement" covering offshore wind developments had a lot of good environmental research, but little focus on birds.</p><p>"Part of that comes from the current administration's interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," she says.</p><p>President Trump has been hostile to both wind energy <em>and</em> birds, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/climate/trump-migratory-bird-protections.html" target="_blank">and finished gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> in his administration's the final days, removing penalties for companies whose operations kill migratory birds.</p><p>There's hope that the Biden administration will take a different approach. But where the federal government has been lacking lately, Kershaw says, they've seen states step up.</p><p>New York, for example, has established an <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Technical Working Group</a> composed of stakeholders to advise on environmentally responsible development of offshore wind.</p><p>The group is led by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, but it isn't limited to the Empire State. It's regional in focus and includes representatives from wind developers with leases between Massachusetts and North Carolina; state agencies from Massachusetts to Virginia; federal agencies; and science-based environmental NGOs.</p><p>New York's latest solicitation for clean energy projects includes up to 2,500 megawatts of offshore wind and <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/announcements" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">requires developers</a> to contribute at least $10,000 per megawatt for regional monitoring of fisheries and other wildlife.</p><p>Environmental groups have also worked directly with developers, including an agreement with Vineyard Wind — an 800-megawatt project off the Massachusetts coast that could be the first utility-scale wind development in federal waters — to help protect North Atlantic right whales.</p><p>The agreement includes no pile driving from Jan. 1 to April 30, ceasing activities at other times when whales are visually or acoustically identified in the area, speed restrictions on vessels, and the use of noise reduction technology, such as a bubble curtain during pile driving.</p><p>"The developers signed the agreement with us, and then they incorporated, most, if not all of those measures into the federal permitting documents," says Kershaw. "The developers really did a lot of bottom up work to make sure that they were being very protective of right whales."</p><p>Environmental groups are in talks with other developers on agreements too, but Felton wants to see best practices being mandated at the federal level.</p><p>"It's the sort of a role that should be being played by the federal government, and without that it makes the permitting and regulation process less stable and less transparent," she says." And that in turn slows down the build out of projects, which is also bad for birds because it doesn't help us address and mitigate for climate change."</p><p>Kershaw agrees there's a lot more work to be done, especially at the federal level, but thinks we're moving in the right direction.</p><p>"I think the work that's been done so far in the United States has really laid the groundwork for advancing this in the right way and in a way that's protective of species and the environment," she says. "At the same time, it's important that offshore wind does advance quickly. We really need it to help us combat the worst effects of climate change."</p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/offshore-wind-wildlife" target="_blank" style="">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
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