Person hit, killed by train in Shelby County Friday, Sep 20 2019 

Police said a person died after being hit by a train in Shelbyville early Friday morning.

        

State lays out tentative plan for takeover of Metro Youth Detention Services Thursday, Sep 19 2019 

"We know and recognize that not only is this complicated but it impacts lots of agencies and lots of people's lives," Deputy Mayor Ellen Hessen said.

        

Groups Work To Raise Awareness, Combat Veteran Suicide Rates In Kentucky Tuesday, Sep 17 2019 

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 or, text to 838255.

——-

On an evening in 2011, Louisville resident Alex Randolph was in Iraq, in the middle of a tour of duty with the Army. The night before, he and his team slept in a tank-like military vehicle. It was the fourth day of a mission and what happened that evening would haunt Randolph for years. It would also change the way his friends back home saw him. Memories of that night eventually led Randolph to think about killing himself.

As Randolph and his team slowly drove down dusty streets, he said a few kids emerged from a house holding guns.

He said his fireteam cautiously watched the kids, who ranged from eight to 12-years-old.

And then, one child started shooting.

“We ended up taking the lives of some kids,” Randolph said. “We had to — it was either our life or their life. When you have an eight-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old child pointing an AK, pointing a weapon at you, and you’re looking straight at it, you have a split second reaction.”

Intellectually, he knows why he did it.

“Am I going to give them a chance to shoot me and take my life? Or shoot one of my brothers or sisters and take their lives? Or am I going to take that shot and take them out?” Randolph said.

But emotionally, he questioned that decision for years. And when he went home with a medical discharge, he felt like a casualty of war. His friends back in Louisville called him a monster, he said. And for years he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from that night and from seeing fellow soldiers die. His thoughts led him into a downward spiral.

Eventually, it all became too much. Randolph said he felt like suicide was the only answer.

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

Alex Randolph outside his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Randolph served in the Iraq War and struggled with suicidal thoughts after he returned.

Randolph’s experience is unfortunately not uncommon for veterans. Veterans are much more likely to kill themselves than people who’ve never served, by nearly 2 to 1. In Kentucky, the veterans’ suicide rate is higher than the nationwide rate. And nearly 17 veterans nationwide die by suicide every day.

Though the problem isn’t new, this level of awareness is, according to Sherman Gillums, the chief advocacy officer with veterans advocacy group AMVETS.

“I don’t think veteran suicide is a new phenomena,” Gillums said. “I do think what’s changed is our awareness because information is more free flowing, and the experiences of service members and veterans is more visible.”

Raising Awareness

That awareness worked in Randolph’s favor. He knew he had to get help. So, one day in 2017, he posted an SOS on the Veteran’s Club Facebook page. Iraq War Veteran Jeremy Harrell is the Veteran’s Club executive director, and created the group to serve as a social club to rebuild that connection that is lost when service members leave the military.

 “Jeremy is the reason why I’m still here,” Randolph said. “Because at that point, I was ready to just end everything.”

In the few years since Harrell started getting a small group of vets together, the group now has 2,000 members Kentucky-wide. And in that time Harrell has fielded many calls from suicidal vets and their family members. Harrell said he draws from his own experiences with suicidal thoughts, and trainings he’s received on suicide prevention.

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

Jeremy Harrell

“I’ve had conversations, sometimes four or five hours, in an effort to try to get them ready to go get some help, and I hate to use the phrase, talk them off the ledge, but to do that,” Harrell said.

Harrell also helps connect the vets to counseling at the VA. That’s a solution Randolph had sought when he was struggling back in 2017.  But he said he was told there was a six- to- eight-week wait. He said he felt like that response was a slap in the face.

 “Then what the hell are y’all even here for? Why should I bother trying to go through y’all to get help? I’ve waited long enough,” Randolph said. “Now you’re telling me I’ve got to two, three, four, six weeks to get the help I’m asking for? You know, I may not be here.” 

Harrell, though, has connections with the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville. Harrell got Randolph in to see a counselor the very next day.

The Robley Rex VA Hospital in Louisville said it’s made some changes since the time Randolph was told he’d have to wait to get an appointment. Louisville VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kelly Marcum said they now have same-day mental health appointments.

“If you need to go in on that day to see someone, but it’s not an emergency issue, you just need to talk to somebody because you have some kind of issue, [and] you’re not feeling an immediate danger to harm yourself or others, you can get at least an assessment with some mental health clinic staff,” Marcum said.

Marcum also said the hospital is working on other projects to prevent veteran suicide. Since July, the Louisville VA has distributed more than 2,000 gun locks to vets. Marcum said even a few minutes to unlock a gun could save a life — there’s usually only a five-minute window when a person is actively attempting suicide. In Kentucky in 2016, three-fourths of suicides by veterans were carried out using a firearm, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

There are also efforts to better educate families of veterans. Gillums with AMVETS said his organization is trying to teach families about red flags that can indicate a veteran is struggling and might be considering suicide. AMVETS recently started offering a suicide prevention online curriculum geared to families.

“It’s the families, the people that are the first line witness to what’s happening that don’t know what they’re seeing,” Gillum said. “The veteran is reacting to a lack of support and a lack of understanding of what’s happening.”

And the Veteran’s Club Facebook page is full of people who are willing to help. On a recent evening, 15 people offered to pick up a vet who said he was having suicidal thoughts and was drinking heavily at a bar. Randolph was one of those people.

“When I start seeing fellow brothers and sisters comment and post if they need help — somebody reached out to me and gave me a hand and led me,” Randolph said. “Now it’s my turn to pay it forward and reach out.” 

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, or text to 838255.

SOAR At Six: Group’s Lofty Goals For Coal Country Meet Challenges On The Ground Monday, Sep 16 2019 

In a conference hall in Pikeville, Kentucky, this September, Gov. Matt Bevin led an eager audience in a countdown. When the audience reached “One!,” a map on the screen behind the governor lit up with the promise of a high-tech future.

After years of delay and scandal, major portions of the commonwealth’s “middle mile” of high-speed internet were complete.

“There are so many negative haters, so many people who pooh-pooh things and say this can’t happen, it’s not possible,” Bevin told the crowd. “But I’ll tell you what. We’ve never quit.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Matt Bevin announce the completion of east Kentucky’s “middle mile” of high-speed internet.

The event was the annual summit of a group called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, founded in 2013 to help guide the flagging counties of Appalachian Kentucky into a new, post-coal economy.

SOAR leaders have largely emphasized improved internet service and increased industrial development. But despite the organization’s recent progress, local development officials struggle to fill vacant industrial parks, large areas still lack high-speed internet, and many coalfield residents remain unconvinced that the organization holds the key to a new future.

Limited Scope

SOAR began in the winter of 2013, when 1,700 east Kentucky business leaders, elected officials, agency heads and concerned citizens gathered in that same Pikeville conference center to hatch a bold new agenda. With 27 percent of east Kentucky coal mining jobs lost in just one year and no turnaround on the horizon, the only option was to chart a new path towards a more diverse central Appalachian economy.

Community leaders fanned out across the 54 counties comprising Appalachian Kentucky. They held listening sessions with thousands of Kentuckians and turned in recommendations that included items like involving incarcerated people in community gardens, supporting local artists, and identifying hotspots of air and water pollution resulting from coal mining.

The effort was bipartisan, spearheaded by east Kentucky’s longtime congressman, Republican Hal Rogers, and Democratic former governor Steve Beshear.

The Rural Policy Research Institute said of the inaugural summit, “Everyone there knew the region was ready to respond to the urgency of the moment with a renewed commitment to working in greater unison, toward a preferred future.”

But when SOAR’s leaders turned the working groups’ recommendations into a blueprint for the organization, working group members found them somewhat changed. The organization would start by championing KentuckyWired, the commonwealth’s fiber-optic internet system, and then, with that critical 21st-century infrastructure in place, it would go full throttle on improving health outcomes, developing a tech-savvy workforce, and germinating growth in the region’s industrial and small-business ecosystem.  As Congressman Rogers put it in 2019, the focus was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Joyce Pinson of Friends Drift Inn Kitchen displays jams and jellies.

But KentuckyWired quickly became mired as costs ballooned and its timeline extended. As most of the eastern Kentucky lagged behind the rest of the country in access to internet, communities continued to struggle to retain residents and build a sustainable economy.

“[SOAR] started as a really great idea, where they were seeking a lot of input from a lot of different people,” said Ivy Brashear, Appalachian Transition Coordinator for MACED, an economic development organization that was involved in SOAR’s early working groups, but has since stepped back. “Over time it has shifted into their approach being outside investment and industrial recruitment,” she said.

Brashear pointed to a recent solar energy project MACED had financed, which helped four Letcher County groups adopt solar energy.

“We believe that shifting the way that energy works is a big deal, and it matters to communities, it matters to them saving money, it matters to what they then are able to do with the money they saved. And what we see in places where we’ve helped people transition to solar is, it can be the difference between them staying open and them closing their doors.”

SOAR officials did not return a request for comment, but its principals told the Lexington Herald-Leader last year that its objectives were long-term, and it had been successful in building connections across eastern Kentucky.

The crowd at SOAR’s sixth conference was a bit thinner – about 800, according to executive director Jared Arnett. The event featured a start-up pitch competition and 92 booths running the gambit from addiction recovery programs to an international drone port. Highly produced videos touted projects conceived of and championed by SOAR, projects like the high-tech greenhouse AppHarvest, and teleworks operation Digital Careers Now.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

Infrastructure And Industry

Some working at the ground level see a long way to go to meet SOAR’s goals.

“There’s tremendous opportunity that people can take advantage of with our workforce down here, and they don’t realize that,” said Bill McIntosh, who worked as a coal miner for 40 years before taking a grant-funded position as Perry County’s economic development coordinator. Part of his job is luring new businesses to the 236-acre Coalfield Industrial Park that Perry County shares with four nearby counties. Like other industrial parks in the region, this one was built on reclaimed surface mines in the hopes of attracting new businesses to a region desperate for a new source of employment.

McIntosh lamented that as more mine land across the region has been turned into build-ready land, companies have their pick of locations, and businesses he hopes to bring to the industrial park often find one thing or another to make them decide against it.

Siting industrial parks on mine land brings its own challenges. “Sometimes it is remote in that it doesn’t have gas, or it doesn’t have broadband or it doesn’t have rail,” McIntosh said. “That’s going to disqualify you as far as having your site selected for a company to come in and set up shop.”

Part of McIntosh’s job, he said, is shifting outsiders’ perceptions of who Appalachians are. “A lot of people are still seeing negative stereotypes: poverty-stricken area, uneducated workforce. That’s not true,” he said. “The major population group in our workforce, [people aged] 45-64, these are people that come from a industrial background. They can easily be cross-trained in other sectors of industry.”

Perry County’s Coalfields Industrial Park is currently home to a FedEx distribution facility, a trucking company, and a call center that is known for its frequent layoffs. A potential new development was recently announced for the industrial park, an aluminum company that could employ as many as 265 people once it’s up and running. The community in 2018 received nearly a million dollars to bring natural gas to the industrial park.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The focus on industrial growth hints, too, at an unstable future for the region. A recent Brookings Institution report found that manufacturing sector jobs are among the most vulnerable to automation. With other job losses likely in food service and transportation sectors, it is projected that the Ohio Valley could lose about one quarter of its jobs to automation. Some counties in the SOAR region could lose up to 65 percent of their jobs.

MACED’s Brashear said the region’s transition would require work on multiple fronts, but she worried about focusing too heavily on industrial development. “I think our history shows that that doesn’t necessarily work, it doesn’t necessarily build a sustainable economy that isn’t trying to figure it out every 10 years or so.”

Wired For Growth

Broadband access is a challenge across the Ohio Valley. The internet provider data service BroadbandNow estimates that 7% of Ohioans, 9% of Kentuckians, and 22% of West Virginians lack the critical 21st-century infrastructure. Those figures mark an improvement from just a few years ago. In 2017, for example nearly 20% of Kentucky homes lacked broadband service.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

SOAR officials hope that reliable, fast internet will help the region retain its workforce and compete for high-tech industries. In fact, SOAR was a part of early conversations about a statewide broadband network, for which bids were solicited in the summer of 2014. The Kentucky Communications Network Authority, a government agency, would spearhead the construction of 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, a “middle mile” that would bring high-speed internet to government offices and other key buildings, and would allow private internet service providers to hook in, for a price, to bring wireless internet to businesses and communities across the region.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

But the “last mile” to connect rural, dispersed homes and businesses, is still a challenge. KCNA interim executive director Deck Decker says residents may have to wait anywhere from six months to several years before broadband is available in their homes and businesses.

“We’re going to try to get in local civic leaders, business leaders, we’re going to get in a room and start discussing this last mile and see who has the best plan,” Decker told a small crowd at the SOAR summit. “I don’t think anybody in this room will tell you they’ve got a magic bullet that’s just going to automatically make the last mile appear in, you know, Harlan County, but we’re going to give it our best,” he said.

Decker said each community would need to find the best way for it to make use of the fiber-optic network, whether it be a private company, a public investment, or a public-private partnership. But the investment will likely be a hurdle for rural counties with far-flung communities.

“I’ve had major providers sit in my office and say, if they can’t get a payback on their investment in 18 months, they can’t do it, because they can’t build a business case for it,” Lonnie Lawson said. Lawson is a KentuckyWired board member and CEO of the Center for Rural Development. He hopes to provide some seed money to help internet service providers justify the investment expense.

Lawson said he hopes the network will allow more Kentuckians to work from home or in high-tech careers, and will help Kentucky students complete digital homework in their own homes.

“It’s about the only solution of trying to keep our best and brightest in the region,” Lawson said. “Otherwise, if we don’t have job opportunities, then our young people are going to leave, and our region is going to suffer year, after year, after year.”

Where can you go for Pumpkin Patches, Corn Mazes, Hayrides and Fall Farm Fun around Louisville ? Tuesday, Sep 10 2019 

Pumpkin patches and corn mazes are fun! Are you looking for pumpkin patches and picking, hay rides, corn mazes, and family fun at a farm this fall? All of the things you are looking for are right here in the Louisville metro area – all over Kentuckiana! Here’s a list of pumpkin patches, corn mazes and more! Make sure to [...]

The post Where can you go for Pumpkin Patches, Corn Mazes, Hayrides and Fall Farm Fun around Louisville ? appeared first on Louisville Family Fun.

Georgetown becomes latest Kentucky city to adopt Fairness Ordinance Monday, Sep 9 2019 

It has become the 13th city in Kentucky to adopt an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

        

Kentucky hospitals suing opioid makers Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

The civil suit alleges the opioid epidemic has forced hospitals to add services, hire additional security and provide increased training to staff.

        

While ‘Zombie’ Mines Idle, Cleanup And Workers Remain In Limbo Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

The sound of metal banging against metal broke the calm on the high mesa separating Colorado’s Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys. An old rusted headframe marked the entrance to an abandoned uranium mine that, from a distance, looked as if its workers were simply off on a lunch break.

Jennifer Thurston, a local environmentalist, paused at the edge of the dirt road, wondering what caused the noise. Then she walked closer, finding ample evidence of the site’s long disuse. Ore sat in a hopper, likely untouched since the mine — known as Van 4 — last produced in 1989. Any loose metal and wiring had long since been stripped from two buildings, one of which looked ready to collapse.

“They’re just sitting out there doing nothing,” Thurston said of the uranium mines dotting southwestern Colorado. “They’re zombies.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Jennifer Thurston, an activist with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, tours the long-idled Van 4 mine. She won a court ruling in July that called for cleanup to begin.

Meanwhile, about 1,500 miles away, out-of-work coal miners spent weeks this summer protesting, camped out on Kentucky railroad tracks, demanding a paycheck they earned but lost when their operator went bankrupt. Though separated by a generation, along with most of a continent, these Eastern miners are linked to their Western counterparts by a seismic shift in the nation’s electricity generation.

Their mines once fueled the coal and nuclear power plants that kept America’s lights on. Now, cheaper natural gas and renewables are helping push them into the red.

But instead of properly closing the mines, their owners are idling them indefinitely, throwing workers into limbo and side-stepping legally mandated, but costly, environmental cleanup.

Several dozen U.S. uranium mines and more than 150 coal mines sit idle and have not produced for years, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Also idled long-term are facilities such as processing plants, including more than 40 in the coal industry. Mine owners have exploited regulatory loopholes to warehouse their operations, changing the status of their permits on paper while little to no activity happens on the ground.

Mining is a cyclical, boom-and-bust industry, so state and federal laws allow companies to pause work while prices rebound. In the coal industry, where the relevant permit status is usually called “temporary cessation,” this pause rarely has a cap — although regulators attempt to track the number that have been idled for at least three years. In uranium mining, where operations usually wait in “standby,” the limits differ by state — 10 years in Colorado but indefinitely in Utah if “good cause” is shown, for instance.

But many of the mines identified in this investigation have remained “temporarily” paused for decades at a time, despite occasional increases in commodity prices.

And most will likely never produce again.

Uranium and coal are the mines most often idled for long periods, but the investigation also identified about 120 quarries and five Western gold mines paused for three or more years.

Mine owners argue they’re operating within the law, saying higher prices will eventually rescue them. Though government regulators have at times attempted to crack down, their hands are often tied. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which oversees coal mining, began rewriting weak federal regulations in 1991; faced with industry pushback, it never finished. The agency killed a more recent effort two months after President Donald Trump took office.

Regulators acknowledge that some companies have abused vague laws. “There were applications where a company had applied to get a temporary cessation status, and they were just trying to keep from having to do any further mining or reclamation,” said Davie Ransdell, a retired Kentucky coal mine inspector.

The Four Corners region — where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet — is home to much of the country’s historical uranium industry, now largely dormant. These sites add to the air and water pollution and low-grade radioactivity that have been linked to local health problems for decades. In Central Appalachia, heavily mined for 150 years, the omnipresent but dying coal industry has sheared off mountaintops and buried streams.

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector who lives in southwestern Virginia near idled operations, is among those fed up with the lack of cleanup.

“They’re destroying everything on Earth and under it,” he said.

Looney Ridge3Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Radioactive Legacy

Remnants of America’s nuclear past litter the Grants Mining District in northwest New Mexico: signs warning of radioactivity, a spiked drill bit outside the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, businesses offering to help retired miners get U.S. Department of Labor health benefits.

Mount Taylor — “Tsoodzil” to the Navajo Nation — towers over the landscape. At the base of the 11,305-foot-tall inactive volcano sits the Mount Taylor Mine, idled in 1990 and allowed to flood

The heyday of Southwestern uranium mining lasted just 30 years. Much of the industry, including this mine, has since remained in standby.

The country’s last operational underground uranium mine shut in 2015, and open-pit mines haven’t produced in decades. Only one mill in Utah and four in-situ-leach operations, in which ore is dissolved belowground and pumped up, are still active. Two other mills and 15 in-situ-leach sites are either officially in standby or not producing. The American uranium industry employed only 372 people last year, down from 1,120 two decades earlier. Production from U.S. uranium mines fell 85 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At current prices, mining uranium in the Four Corners remains untenable.

But now the Mount Taylor Mine is reopening, at least on paper. Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has been fighting the long-idled mine in court. “What we’re asking for is what the Legislature demands: that the mine either start producing or it start reclaiming,” he said, speaking at his home office, boxes of paperwork and his dog’s chew toys competing for space. Out front, a bumper sticker on his car said, “Uranium — Leave it in the ground.”

The Mount Taylor Mine’s first standby permit was issued in 1999. That means this October the site exhausts the maximum 20 years of inactivity New Mexico allows. In December 2017, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, later backed up by the New Mexico Mining Commission on appeal, allowed the mine to re-enter “active” status even though the mining company’s application noted it required eight years to restart production.

Jantz said state regulators “seem to bend over backwards to accommodate the mining interests’ needs, at the same time minimizing, belittling and, a lot of times, ultimately dismissing community concerns.”

Susan Torres, spokeswoman for the state Environment Department, wrote in a statement that companies can’t clean up their site while in standby. The mining division “approved the Permittee’s proposal to resume active status for the purpose of undertaking partial reclamation operations,” she wrote.

In its court filings, General Atomics subsidiary Rio Grande Resources, which owns the Mount Taylor Mine but didn’t make anyone available to comment, said the plaintiffs spread “revisionist history” and that “in light of the several intervening permit actions that have long since become final,” standby status didn’t begin when mining stopped. In an appellate decision in late July, a state court affirmed the state mining agency’s decision to allow the non-producing mine to switch its permit status to “active.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A sign warns of an abandoned uranium mine. Two such mines, in addition to a former mill site, surround the Red Water Pond Road Community in the Navajo Nation.

Twenty miles southeast, the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine, once the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, is now a Superfund site. In the broader Four Corners region, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to clean up more than 20 such Cold War relics, from former mills to waste piles. Some leak arsenic, lead, uranium and other toxic substances into groundwater. Recently, hoofprints were found leading from an unfenced pollution control pond near Slick Rock, Colorado, indicating that cattle likely drink from it.

Just inside the southeastern corner of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, an unsettling sign hangs from barbed wire: “DANGER. ABANDONED URANIUM MINE,” a pile of mine waste looming behind it. Residents here in the Red Water Pond Road Community are surrounded by two abandoned uranium mines and a mill.

A cold wind blew dust across the landscape from the pale yellow mounds of waste. Some landed on a modest home where a trickle of cars pulled up one morning in May, carrying researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center. They’d come to collect blood and urine samples for a project studying whether zinc supplements could reduce the impacts of exposure to the heavy metals in uranium mine waste.

Living around or working in uranium mines can worsen, or even trigger, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, respiratory issues, hypertension and cancer. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the University of New Mexico and Navajo agencies found that Navajo Nation citizens, including infants, had elevated levels of uranium in their bodies.

Paul Robinson, Southwest Research and Information Center’s research director, has tracked the industry for more than 40 years. While the New Mexico Mining Act mandates that waste rock and other infrastructure be stabilized before entering standby status, it allows operators to delay reclamation while mining is paused, he said.

“Leaving the wastes that are generated at a mine uncovered is one of the ways to ensure airborne or waterborne release,” Robinson said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine. Many of his coworkers have since died from cancer, he says.

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation who spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine, grew up here and returned for the study. He said many of his mining coworkers died from lung cancer. The sheep and cattle that used to graze here have all but disappeared, the flocks given up for fear of contamination.

“The thing about uranium, we found out: It destroys humans and land,” Bell said.

Opinion remains split locally about whether the return of relatively high-paying mining jobs — if that ever happened — would be worth the human and environmental consequences. Christine Lowery, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a commissioner for the county where the Mount Taylor Mine is located, said she welcomes a cleaner economy.

“Those mines were open for one generation,” she said. “The legacy lasts forever.”

‘Wolves are at my door’

More than 20 years ago, Todd Adams followed his father, uncles and grandfathers into the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky. The area has a history of bloody labor fights. But even so, he was shocked by what happened after his employer filed for bankruptcy protection on July 1: Blackjewel quietly clawed his final paycheck out of his bank account.

Blackjewel is part of a private coal empire until recently owned by Jeff Hoops, an avid user of temporary cessation. Workers around the country lost their jobs and final paychecks when several of his companies, including another operator called Revelation Energy, sought bankruptcy protection.

“If I can work in this industry another 20 years, that’s good for me,” said Adams. He participated in this summer’s railroad protest but believes the industry will disappear from Harlan within a few decades. “But this younger generation, I don’t know what the county holds for them.”

U.S. coal production has fallen by a third in the past decade, and temporary cessation has emerged as an escape route for cash-strapped owners. One in five non-abandoned coal mines now sits idle. Hoops’ companies have idled coal operations more often and for longer than nearly anyone, and the Blackjewel and Revelation bankruptcy proceedings offer a master class in avoiding liability in a dying industry.

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

Central Appalachia — covering portions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — was once the heart of U.S. coal. Its share of production halved in the past 15 years, and as the industry dissolved, the region became the epicenter of long-term idling. About half the country’s 415 idled coal mines and related facilities, and half of those idled for more than three years, are located here, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. That’s likely an undercount, but state and federal data are incomplete and not often comparable.

Long-term idling brings huge layoffs. Coal mines and the plants serving them that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before, Public Integrity’s analysis found. Management often promises that jobs will quickly return, miners say, encouraging workers to stay in towns with few other prospects.

This mainly happens in the East; out West, just eight coal operations sit idle, with only three workers still employed between them.

Union mines are not immune to idling and benefit losses, but some union contracts grant members call-back rights if their mines reopen and priority to transfer to other operations under the same owner, if not.

Glenn Sykes, a Vietnam veteran, spent 32 years mining Central Appalachian coal. Even though the industry was stronger then, Sykes wasn’t a union miner, and whenever one job dried up, the company’s support was “cut off right then. All my benefits were gone.”

“They’d say this job was gonna last 20 years. You were lucky if it lasted three. I was always moving around from job to job,” Sykes said. He has silicosis, a deadly lung disease likely caused by the fine dust kicked up in mines, and is fighting to preserve his benefits.

Data before the early 2000s was spotty, but it appears to indicate an uptick in temporary cessation during the 1990s. As the industry wanes, so too does the number of producing mines. Fifteen years ago, 61 percent of coal mines were producing, not including abandoned sites, which were largely jettisoned before the federal coal mining law was passed in 1977. That number has since fallen to 42 percent.

And though coal regulators knew that temporary cessation could be used as a loophole, they failed to enact meaningful changes.

First in 1991 and again in 2011, Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, proposed to write new rules to better regulate the practice. The first attempt was withdrawn a year later after the mining industry and several state agencies called it unnecessary. The second attempt was halted by the Trump administration.

Internal notes made by OSMRE staff in 2010, recently obtained by Public Integrity, showed that not-so-temporary closures were bedeviling regulators around the country. A survey sent to all state and federal agencies overseeing coal mining found that a majority “experienced problems administering temporary cessation. Most States believe there should be a maximum time limit.”

The agency’s Tennessee office told OSMRE officials, “The temporary cessation concept has been abused for years by operators desiring to retain viable permits but not conducting mining operations” and that efforts to compel either reclamation or mining “have failed for lack of … clearly defined regulations or policies.”

As the industry shrinks, long-term idling can be used as a stepping stone to forfeiture, passing cleanup responsibilities to the government and taxpayers. That may happen to some of Hoops’ mines. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Hoops and his family walked away from most of their companies.

Hoops specialized in scavenging, buying often unprofitable mines after a series of bankruptcies hit the country’s largest coal companies in 2015 and 2016.

Twenty-one of his coal mines and related facilities were temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, seven of them for at least three years.

idle-mines-by-age-v5Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Potential buyers appeared interested last month in some of the mines owned by his companies in bankruptcy proceedings. But what would happen to the rest was unclear. If unpurchased, they would likely fall to states to reclaim — first with the inadequate funds companies set aside for that purpose, and after that with taxpayer money. At least 16 additional Central Appalachian operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy are idle.

Records from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet showed that more than 20 percent of permits idled in the state are tied to Hoops or were until July’s bankruptcy.

Cabinet spokesman John Mura said state legal staff is actively engaged in the bankruptcy proceedings, adding that the state is not concerned about temporary cessation because only 10 percent of Kentucky coal permits are currently idle.

Reached by phone, Hoops declined to comment. Numbers listed to Lexington Coal Co., where his wife Patricia is an executive, were disconnected.

About 1,100 Central Appalachian miners lost their jobs during the bankruptcy. Brandon Fleming, a Virginia miner who lived and worked not far from Harlan County, was one of several who said their employer sharply cut costs beforehand. Fleming said that workers were told: “If you find a pair of safety glasses lying in the mud, if you need a pair, wipe them off and use them. If you need gloves, go buy your own. And if you didn’t like it, go get another job.”

When he cashed what turned out to be a bad check from Blackjewel, his bank initially threatened legal action against him. He’s since been given several months to pay the money back, money that he earned. Now he’s working at a car dealership for half the pay and three times the commute.

“I’ve done lost just about everything, and the wolves are at my door,” Fleming said. His wife’s car was repossessed, and he couldn’t afford to buy his fourth-grade daughter new school clothes. “It breaks my heart.”

Paperwork shuffling

The calendar pinned to the wall read “April 2009,” although it was actually May 2019 at the abandoned office of the Sunday Mine, 17 miles southwest of Naturita, Colorado. Cobwebs covered an empty desk in the next room, and paperwork spilled out of a box onto the dusty floor.

“This mine is not going to come back to life,” Thurston, the activist, said as she viewed the mess.

The Sunday Mine is part of a complex of five uranium operations owned by Western Uranium & Vanadium subsidiary Pinon Ridge Mining. Now, president and CEO George Glasier, a titan of American uranium mining, hopes to restart them after years of idling.

Legal battles are being fought across the Uravan Mineral Belt in southwestern Colorado. Modern uranium miners, including Glasier, want to revive their operations, while Thurston, a mine watchdog with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, believes final reclamation should begin. As she whipped her car through the region’s valleys, she noted with a flash of dark humor that she’s stared at the same piles of waste rock her entire life.

In July, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the environmental group in one case. A panel of judges ruled that the Van 4 mine — the old site above Paradox, near the Sunday Mine and also owned by Glasier — had overstayed its allotted time in temporary cessation.

In the Uravan Mineral Belt, 31 lease tracts managed by the Department of Energy cover about 25,000 acres. A federal court in Colorado lifted a long-standing injunction against new mining activity in March. Two months later, the mines were still far from production. At one called C-JD-5, equipment and buildings were badly damaged from years of theft.

Republican state Sen. Don Coram is part-owner of Gold Eagle Mining, which holds C-JD-5 and several other mines that haven’t produced since he bought in more than 20 years ago. Over breakfast in May, he said it comes down to the markets.

“It’s a big waiting game right now,” he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bullet holes pockmark a sign showing the location of buried uranium mill waste in southwest Colorado.

C-JD-5 is “abandoned,” according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. But the Department of Energy considers it “actively leased.” Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety records show Coram switched the permit out of “final reclamation” in the most recent annual report.

That’s why environmental activists call such operations “zombie mines” — it’s impossible to say whether they’re alive or dead.

Mining law’s complexity makes this possible.

Coal mining falls under a federal law that mandates only that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days. Twenty-one of the 23 states still producing coal wrote their own laws. But some barred themselves from enacting rules stricter than the federal government’s, and most long-term idling occurs in those states.

The federal government leaves it to the states to impose limits on uranium-mine idling. The resulting patchwork of state rules are largely anchored on a 147-year-old federal law aimed more at promoting mining than managing it.

Over time, uranium production has dropped, stockpiles remained large, nuclear power’s share of the country’s electricity production fell, and power plants bought more uranium from overseas. Still, mine owners hope for a revival.

Uranium producers banked on a petition to Trump that would have effectively subsidized the industry by compelling 25 percent of uranium used in American power plants to be produced domestically. But in July, the administration announced that importing uranium didn’t threaten national security, punting the question to a working group for further review.

While the industry awaits a decision, companies hold off on final reclamation. Groundwater monitoring at the Sunday Mine Complex has found heavy metals, although Glasier says the mine is above the water table and any water problems are naturally occurring.

“Once you reclaim something, it’s a lot harder to start it,” Glasier said at his ranch, which covers tens of thousands of acres along the San Miguel River. The impressive home he purchased with the profits from a successful mining career stands at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. “Once you shut the industry down,” he said, “it’s going to take you 10, 15 years and a high price to bring it back.”

Both Glasier and Coram believe another element might save their mines first. Vanadium, which often occurs alongside uranium in the Uravan, can be used in powerful batteries. Glasier believes his mines have high concentrations; he recently restarted sampling at the Sunday Mine Complex.

Neither man considers himself part of the industry’s history of pollution. They said they would willingly begin reclamation when their temporary cessation permits run out, if uranium and vanadium prices haven’t risen enough.

“The reason it got so messed up to begin with: It was totally the rush of the federal government,” Coram said. “We were in a wartime situation and were going to produce this at all costs.”

Cleaning up after the governor

As uranium mining pockmarked Colorado’s valleys, the coal industry eviscerated low peaks and forests in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Remembering how it was and how it is is depressing as hell,” said Bush, the former coal miner and mine inspector.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector, grew up hunting squirrels on this hill near Keokee, Virginia, which was since stripped and has been only partially reclaimed by companies linked to the governor of West Virginia.

Except for time spent serving in Vietnam, Bush is a lifelong resident of southwest Virginia, where the commonwealth melts into Central Appalachian coal country. Area streams once teemed with minnows, he said. Now they’re choked by silt running off unreclaimed mines.

He grew up hunting squirrels on a hill above his home, but a strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family now dominates the landscape. Today, Bush lives just up the road, where the hill above that home, too, has been leveled by a Justice operation.

Both mines have sat inactive for years at a time, fouling local waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and four states filed legal action in 2016 against Justice and his companies, listing thousands of violations relating to inadequate environmental monitoring and water pollution, including elevated levels of iron and manganese flowing from these mines.

Justice and his family idle more permits than any other U.S. coal mine owners, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal data. Miles of ridgeline on the Virginia-Kentucky border lie barren after Justice mines went dormant.

It’s difficult to separate the environmental and health impacts caused by idled mines from those triggered by active operations, said Emily Bernhardt, a professor at Duke University who researches human impacts on ecosystems. Modern surface mining in Central Appalachia has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to birth defects. And in a 2012 study, Bernhardt estimated that surface mining impaired about one in three miles of southern West Virginia’s rivers.

But idling poses other risks, Bernhardt said. When toxic waste piles — either solid rock or liquid confined behind earthen dams — are left unaddressed, the potential increases for “catastrophic failure,” she said, even as opportunities to use the land for new purposes are delayed.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just on hold,” she said.

In Central Appalachia, tens of thousands of acres, mostly former forests, lie barren at these idled coal operations, according to a Public Integrity analysis of satellite data compiled by environmental group SkyTruth. Communities that hope to grow outdoor recreation or other post-mining industries can’t move forward.

Ransdell, the former Kentucky mine inspector, said regulators can reject applications for idled status if they catch noncompliance and ongoing pollution. But problematic mines can slip through the cracks. She recalled a permit in eastern Kentucky that was put into temporary cessation for a decade because its underground workings were on fire. And the longer that surface mines are left exposed, the more likely that acid will leak into waterways, ponds holding polluted runoff will overflow and massive waste impoundments destabilize. 

“Coal companies know [long-term idling is] a viable option,” Ransdell said. “It’s something that can be abused easily because there are vague guidelines.”

Thirty-three mines and a preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August, and 15 of them have been idled for at least three years, according to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. One mine in McDowell County, West Virginia — Justice’s home state — has been paused since 2010.

And in Virginia — where two of his family’s coal operations have been idled on and off since 1984 — the Justice companies have only one mine still producing. They’re years behind on several of the original cleanup deadlines the state set.

“The end goal is to meet environmental obligations required by law in the state of Virginia, so we’ve given them dates and specific instructions of what needs to be reclaimed by when,” said Tarah Kesterson, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Idling permits is “standard practice” in the industry, a spokesman for the Justice companies, Brian Walsh, said in an emailed statement. “The Justice companies are proud to be one of the region’s leading job creators and environmental leaders within the coal industry” and have reclaimed several thousand acres in recent years, he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A broken down bulldozer rusts in 2018 on a Virginia strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family.

Regulators in Virginia have few options. Justice mine cleanup liabilities in Virginia total as much as $200 million, and taxpayers could get stuck with a large share of that if the state takes over. That’s because those companies have put up only about $51 million for cleanup if the operations are abandoned. Half of that amount would likely be worthless in that scenario because, state records show, it is backed against the value of the companies. A pool of money Virginia set up to close gaps like this at 150 permits across the state, including some of Justice’s, has less than $10 million in it.

The state requires that mines covered by that shared funding pool increase the amount of money they set aside for reclamation once they’re idled longer than six months. But funding shortfalls persist.

All told, nearly a third of permits in Virginia are in some degree of temporary cessation, according to Kesterson.

This makes Bush angry: It’s created wastelands, he said.

An August visit to the Justice mine above his childhood home found reclamation still unfinished. Puddles dotted the site. Grass and weeds poked up through the exposed rock, in stark contrast to the lush surrounding forest. Near the treeline, a broken-down bulldozer sat abandoned, rusting.

Mark Olalde reported and wrote this story, and Joe Yerardi produced the data analysis. Brittany Patterson, energy and environment reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource, contributed to this article.

Idle Lands: Justice Coal Group Top User Of Loophole Allowing Mine Lands To Sit Idle Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

Standing at an overlook on the top of Black Mountain — the tallest point in Kentucky —  the wooded Appalachian mountains stretch on like a sea of green for miles.

For many, this mountain is synonymous with the coal industry. It straddles the state line separating Harlan County, Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia, two communities that have long relied on mining the black gold contained in its depths.

Among the lush forests, barren, brown spots dot the landscape, a testament to this history. These are coal mines, created when the tops of these mountains were removed. From the top of Black Mountain, one sprawling mine and its towering high wall dominate the view.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Matt Hepler of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

“So, we are looking currently looking at Looney Ridge surface mine number one,” says Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

Hepler has for years been following action, or lack thereof, at the Looney Ridge mine, which is operated by A&G Coal, a coal company run by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Coal has not been produced here since at least 2013 when A&G Coal asked Virginia regulators to place the mine in what is called temporary cessation. The permit status allows mining to pause, giving mining companies flexibility on requirements for land reclamation until it becomes more economically feasible to begin extracting coal again. And, as the name implies, this idling of mines is supposed to be temporary.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

View of the Looney Ridge surface mine from atop Black Mountain.

An analysis of mine permit data conducted by the Center for Public Integrity finds Central Appalachia is home to about half of all idled coal mines in the country. CPI found more than 200 mines are idled across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. About half have been that way for three or more years. Warehousing mines using this permit status throws workers and nearby communities into limbo all while crucial environmental cleanup is delayed.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The analysis shows that the Justice companies are the nation’s most frequent users of coal mine idling. Thirty-three mines and a coal preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August. Fifteen of those have been in that status for at least three years, according to CPI’s analysis. In West Virginia, one Justice mine in McDowell County has been idled for almost a decade.

That number doesn’t include the Looney Ridge mine or others nearby in Virginia where coal also hasn’t been mined for years. That’s because in early 2014, state mining regulators entered into a compliance agreement with the Justices to force them to reclaim the site.

Hepler, with Appalachian Voices, said that agreement has not resulted in much actual reclamation. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has amended the compliance agreement multiple times.

“It’s looked like this for as long as I’ve been coming up here,” he said, pointing to the same broken-down bulldozer that has been there for years.

Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson with the Virginia DMME, said the agency is pushing the Justices to clean up the site and is actively monitoring the situation as well as conducting inspections.

“We are doing everything within our enforcement authority to ensure that this gets done,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice companies defended the reclamation work and said idling permits is a standard practice across the industry.

But as the nation shifts away from coal toward more economic options for power generation, such as natural gas and renewable energy, some fear the use of mine idling can be used as a stepping stone to abandon mines, passing the responsibility for cleanup to the government and taxpayers.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Community Impact

Idle mines, especially those left untouched for years at a time, can negatively affect the economy, health, and environment of nearby communities.

“When mines become inactive or idle, they starve a local community, and they deprive the community of the coal mining jobs and other related jobs,” said Joe Pizarchik, former head of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of regulating surface coal mines, during the Obama administration.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

When mines enter temporary cessation employment plummets. CPI’s analysis found coal operations that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before.

“It also puts that land in a totally non-productive state,” Pizarchik said. “It’s not making money on anything for anybody for the community, and it can be a potential pollution source.”

In addition to being unsightly, there are health and safety risks associated with leaving mines unreclaimed, said Emily Bernhardt an ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist and professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Mines left idled can expose residents to coal and silica dust. They can also pose a risk for landslides and flooding. During surface coal mining, operators pile tons of rock and liquid behind earthen dams. When left idle, those impoundments face a greater likelihood of failing.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just sort of on hold,” Bernhardt said.

Who Pays?

Federal regulators have made two attempts since the 1990s to reform the way temporary cessation is used, according to public records obtained by CPI. Both have stalled. That’s despite a 2010 survey of state regulators that showed most states believed there should be limits on how long mines could be idled.

Federal law only requires that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black Mtn. holds both natural beauty and scars of resource extraction.

State regulators can reject applications to change mines to an idled status if they find noncompliance or ongoing pollution. Kesterson with the Virginia DMME said before an operator can apply for temporary cessation, reclamation must be up to date. In Kentucky and Virginia, inspections continue while a mine is idled, and operators are fined if violations are found.

While in the past, mine operators may have used idling to pause production to allow coal prices to rebound, Pizarchik worries the nation’s shift away from coal means the chances of idled mines being cleaned up are shrinking.

“I believe it’s extremely unlikely that those mines will ever be activated again because the price of coal is never going to go up,” he said. “The demand is only going to continue to shrink.”

If operators walk away from idled mines, states could face challenges with mine reclamation depending on how coal mine bonds are regulated, and that could leave taxpayers on the hook for paying for reclamation.

In Virginia, for example, Justice mines have an estimated $200 million worth of cleanup liabilities, according to minutes from an April 2017 Coal Surface Mining Reclamation Fund Advisory Board meeting.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

While Virginia is moving away from allowing coal operators to “self-bond” — or not put up a cash bond or buy a bond from an insurance firm if a company is deemed to be in good financial health — some A&G Coal permits remain self-bonded, Kesterson said. That means if the company were to go under, the state would get none of the money required for cleanup.

The state has in the past allowed coal companies to pay only partial bond amounts into a shared pool. The bond pool is meant to supplement cleanup for more than 150 permits, but the pool has less than $10 million cash.

“The reclamation would cost more than what we have in a pool bond,” Kesterson said of liabilities owed by A&G Coal. “So that’s why we’re trying to work with them, to get them to pay for the reclamation.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Not all states are concerned. John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in an email that only 10 percent of Kentucky’s coal mines, or 150 permits, are in temporary cessation.

CPI’s analysis examined federal MSHA data on idled mining permits and is likely an undercount of idled mines because state and federal data are incomplete and often not comparable.

Mura said that following an order in 2011 by OSMRE to reform the state bonding program, base bond amounts have increased by about 60 percent.

“Kentucky has made great strides to ensure that reclamation bonds are adequate to complete reclamation in the event of bond forfeiture,” he said.

As the industry contracts, more bankruptcies are likely, which can open the door for companies to walk away from mines where buyers can’t be found.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A truck enters a mine belonging to the now-bankrupt Revelation Energy.

That’s one concern currently playing out with the Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy, which has left more than 1,000 miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia without their last paychecks.

CPI’s analysis found Blackjewel and other subsidiaries owned by former CEO Jeff Hoops had 21 coal mines and related facilities temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, and seven of those had been paused for at least three years. Many of those mines have not been purchased since Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

At least 16 additional operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy sit in idle status, all of them in Central Appalachia, according to federal data.

‘Raped Out Mountains’

Retired coal miner and mine inspector Larry Bush knows firsthand how idle mines can impact the environment.

Bush lives below two Justice mines — one that is active and Looney Ridge. Sitting under a covered gazebo at a park in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, where he has lived almost his whole life, Bush said he sees the environmental toll unreclaimed mines can have on the environment.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Former miner Larry Bush lives near two large coal mines in Virginia.

“There’s a little stream that’s pretty much filled up with silt,” he said. “Nothing can live in it. I mean, there’s nothing, I don’t think.”

The 70-year-old Vietnam veteran is soft-spoken and sports a pair of reflective aviator glasses.

Bush wants to see this region rebound as the coal industry declines, but he struggles to see how that can happen with idled mines marking the landscape.

“If they’re not actively employing people, or actively working the site, they should be forced to do their reclamation work instead of just leaving raped out mountains,” he says.

This story was produced in partnership with High Country News and the Center for Public Integrity. CPI’s Mark Olalde contributed reporting and Joe Yerardi produced CPI’s data analysis.

Louisville woman pleads guilty to sex trafficking 2 women Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

Prosecutors said she used violence, threats, fear and intimidation to coerce two women to engage in commercial sex acts in the Louisville area in 2017.

        

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