SEJ's 20th Annual Conference Coverage

Coverage of SEJ's 20th Annual Conference

October 13-17, 2010
Missoula, Montana


Agenda Registration Lodging/Transportation Exhibits/Receptions Missoula Coverage


Wild Rockies and the Changing West

SEJ's 20th annual conference, October 13-17, 2010, was hosted by the University of Montana in Missoula. Below you'll find multimedia coverage provided by SEJ, volunteers and conference attendees. See also:

Thank you to all our volunteer writers, recorders and photographers — we couldn't have done it without you.

NOTE: It's critically important to SEJ to gather evidence on the impact of our work. Please help us to keep SEJ strong and share links, photos, copies of reporting generated or informed by this conference! Thanks!!! Contact Cindy MacDonald, SEJ's Web content manager.

Page Menu

Wednesday, October 13
Thursday, October 14
Friday, October 15
Saturday, October 16
Sunday, October 17
Miscellaneous conference coverage
Pre-conference Montana environmental stories



Wednesday, October 13


All-Day Workshop 2: Environmental Law, Western Style


Enforcement: Why Is It So Hard to Successfully Prosecute Environmental Crimes?

Contemporary Challenges to Antique Laws


Opening Reception and Dinner

  • "Top environmental journalists meet at UM for annual conference"
    Hundreds of environmental journalists from around the world enjoyed a warm welcome to Montana for SEJ's 20th Annual Conference, hosted by the University of Montana. Conferees at the opening reception enjoyed local fare supplied through the university's Farm to College program, talks by former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, and exhilarating songs and drumming by Native Americans. The opening reception was followed by the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment annual awards ceremony (see the winners). By Kate Whittle of the Montana Kaimin, UM's independent campus newspaper, October 14, 2010.
  • Kevin Kicking Woman and two friends did the two songs opening our Wednesday gathering. Kevin is a member of the Blackfeet tribe.

    Mike Kenmille and the Chief Cliff Singers did the three rounds of drumming/singing at the end. They're members of the Kootenai tribe and belong to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes nation on the Flathead Reservation. Audio and related story by SEJ member Emily Gertz on the SEJ2010 Unofficial Conference Blog.


SEJ Awards Ceremony


Thursday, October 14


For more tours coverage, see the SEJ 2010 Unofficial Conference Blog.


Tour 1: Crown of the Continent: Glacier National Park


Tour 3: Clark Fork River: Restoring the Nation's Largest Superfund Site


The Clark Fork River Superfund Tour

Stretching from the infamous Berkeley Pit in Butte to the former Milltown Dam site outside Missoula, the Clark Fork Superfund area is the largest complex of federal Superfund sites in the country. An amalgamation of four different sites, Butte/Silver Bow Creek, Montana Pole, the Anaconda Smelter, and the Milltown Reservoir, this area follows 140 contiguous miles of the Clark Fork River. Beginning at Butte and following the river back to Missoula, last week's Clark Fork Superfund Tour traced the tragic narrative of this area’s degradation from its mining source to the affected people and regions downstream. As the tour's various speakers highlighted, current EPA efforts to remedy and restore these areas give reason to be hopeful about the future viability of these once lush riparian communities. Though the toxic mistakes made at each site will leave permanent scars on the landscape, especially in regards to the Pit, the resiliency of nature and power of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) are showing remediation efforts are always worthwhile in the face of degradation.

Standing on the observation platform above its brown, still waters, the Berkeley Pit could at first be confused with a normal lake. As the details of the scene, no traces of plant or animal life and no sounds apart from the platform speakers' bluegrass music sink in, however, its unnatural state becomes apparent. At over 1,000 ft. deep and containing over 40 billion gallons of water, the Berkeley Pit is one of the largest contaminated lakes in the world. Originally an open pit mine dug by the Anaconda Copper Corporation, the Berkeley Pit produced some of the richest copper ore ever known and was a boon for the Butte economy. Because of its depth and penetration of the water table, complex pumping operations were maintained to ensure its shafts didn't flood. Its evolution into the Pit of today came in 1982 when, following a steep decline in copper prices, Anaconda announced it would suspend all operations at the site. This decision included the ongoing shaft pumping and, as this stopped, water began filling the sink. As the lowest point in the vicinity, the Berkeley Pit acts as a natural cone of depression for the area's two aquifers: the superficial, permeable alluvial aquifer and the deep, trapped bedrock aquifer. Both flow into the Pit, the result of the upper alluvial's greater downward pressure, and are affected by exposed deposits within the mines. This contact, coupled with the area's natural geochemistry, results in a highly acidic water pH of 2.5 to 3.0. Adding to this acidity was the Horseshoe Bend drainage, toxic water diverted into the Pit from nearby mining operations. Heavy metals in high concentrations in the water include: Copper, Zinc, Cadmium, and Iron. Between these sources, the acid lake of the Berkeley Pit continues to grow yearly.

Since CERCLA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forced the Atlantic Ridgefield Company (ARCO) to begin remediation of the site in 1996, a policy of perpetual containment and maintenance has been implemented. The critical water level of the Berkeley Pit is 5,410 feet, at which time it would no longer be the area’s lowest point. From here the Pit's acidic water would leach into the alluvial aquifer, and gain access to the area's water system. To prevent this catastrophe, while putting its water to practical use, the Horseshoe Bend Wastewater Treatment plant treats 3.4 million gallons of water daily. Some of the most effective treatments include lime and limestone, which chemically react to the acidity and raise the pH. All treated water is used in other nearby mining operations, mainly the Continental Pit mine adjacent to the Berkeley Pit, and returned to the Pit at 250,000 gallons a day. As long as the rate of water treated daily always exceeds the combined rate of returned water and new entry flow, the Pit will ideally be kept under the critical water level. Most life, flocks of birds in particular, must always be chased away from the acidic water, lest they die from prolonged contact. Certain microorganisms, dubbed extremophiles for their hardiness in inhospitable habitats, are the only life capable of withstanding the Pit. Today, research into these populations is showing unforeseen promise: the same water that would cause terminal poisonings is now supporting life with promising anti-cancer potential. Natural cycles are uncanny in their ability to make the best of humans' worst mistakes. For ARCO, the site will drain millions in maintenance costs annually for the rest of their existence. For the people of Butte, the Pit is a specter at the feast, reminding them and other communities of the true cost of unregulated mineral exploitation. For the EPA, the Berkeley Pit looms large over any efforts undertaken downstream. As Greg Mullan, investigator with the Natural Resource Damage Program under the Montana Department of Justice, eloquently stated, "The Berkeley Pit is the elephant in the room. A mistake there could undo all the restoration work downstream."

Sitting above and behind the Berkeley Pit, the Yankee Doodle Tailings Ponds dwarf their toxic neighbor: the impoundment is three times the size of the Pit. They're separated by one of the largest earthen dams in the world, a massive wall of former waste rock mined from the Pit below. Created to store the tailings waste of nearby mining operations, including the still active Continental Pit, materials entering it are now treated with lime to avoid further acidic mine drainage. This monstrous site is one of the few benefiting from continued mine activities. They keep it moist with new wastewater and, by remaining a metallic sludge rather than dry, prevent toxic dust clouds from building over its surface. Like the Pit, its continued presence on the landscape is assured. The Yankee Doodle Tailings' depth and size are too massive to ever leave the area or be restored, thereby making rock and soil capping the only option to mitigate it. That the tailings will remain present, no matter the depths to which they are buried, is a solemn reminder of the permanence of some environmental mistakes.

Leaving the Berkeley Pit area, the tour took us along Silver Bow Creek to view its tailings pond areas, including the Ramsay Flats. Lifeless areas of long -since-decayed plants and sparkling, mineral rich sands, tailings ponds are the result of mining wastes being dumped or swept onto the land via human callousness and rain. Silver Bow Creek is also part of the region's floodplain, so, acting under natural cycles, it flooded periodically. These occurrences, particularly a huge flood in 1908, spread the toxic tailings piles downstream. As high concentrations of heavy metals corrupted the entire floodplain, the lush riparian ecosystems along Silver Bow Creek were reduced to barren stretches devoid of activity. It was a tragic reminder that, regardless of our actions, natural systems will always act upon an area. Just as the floodplain functioned to sweep beneficial minerals and sediment from the stream to the surrounding soil, it swept the mining waste left in its path over the land. The carelessness of mankind turned a life-giving natural process into the death knell for an entire region. At the same time, however, it is the intelligence and ingenuity of mankind that is helping life return to the land once lost.

Through the EPA's efforts and ARCO's required payments, tailings remediation and restoration efforts have been ongoing since 1999. Remediation efforts focus on eliminating direct threats to the environment and humans by setting cleanup levels to legal standards. At Silver Bow Creek, these have entailed using lime treatments throughout the tailings and floodplain, removing impacted soils, and reconstructing the stream channel. Restoration procedures, aimed at restoring damaged areas to their previously uncontaminated condition, were then undertaken. Efforts on this front included: spreading organic matter throughout the floodplain, constructing wetland areas along the creek, and restoring damaged wildlife habitat via replanting native grasses and shrubs. These actions jumpstarted damaged communities through fixing the soil and replicating naturally-occurring riparian systems of the area. Seeing Silver Bow Creek today, the fruits of this labor are readily apparent. The tailings ponds dot the landscape more than they dominate it. Plants and insects have returned to the streamside in abundance, bringing with them the building blocks of larger ecological communities. Even trout are sporadically found in the once-toxic waters. Comparing Silver Bow Creek photos from ten years ago to its modern appearance is like comparing the barren moon surface to that of Earth. Such is this site's amazing transformation through the EPA's hard work and the restorative powers of natural processes when integrated into restoration efforts.

We next headed to the Anaconda Smelter site, the home of one of the world's largest freestanding smokestacks. Perched ominously on a nearby hillside, it was once the epicenter of a massive smelting industrial complex next to Anaconda. Massive slag piles have replaced these buildings, but the smokestack remains a testament to the industry that once owned this land and to the pollution issues plaguing it today. Unlike other tour sites, Anaconda's main degradation is owed to the aerial deposition of arsenic and metals via the longtime emissions of its smokestacks. As a result, the area's topsoil became highly acidic, toxic to vegetation, and easily eroded due to the ensuing lack of groundcover. Because high arsenic concentrations were deposited on this loose soil, dust storms in the area became poisonous to town residents. To mitigate these effects, the EPA removed any soils exceeding 250 ppm of arsenic in residential areas, excavated the remaining wastes in the industrial complex, and brought in new cover soil capable of supporting vegetation. Through these efforts, the EPA believes Anaconda residents have little risk of health impacts by staying in the area. A quiet town, obviously influenced by its industrial past, Anaconda now seems like any other sleepy mountain hamlet. Trees and front yards grow in the transplanted topsoil, holding it in place and recreating a sense of place once lost.

For a side-note to the main Superfund site stops, the tour journeyed to the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. This project, run by the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula, is aimed at preparing landowners for upcoming Superfund cleanup activities along the Clark Fork River. By running an agricultural operation during federal cleanup efforts, the CFC hopes to provide an example of how to work with the government during the complex process of cleaning tailings. They also hope that by using only holistic ranching practices, aimed at restoring and preserving local ecosystems, other ranchers will follow suit. Fostering collaboration and dialogue, between environmentalists, the federal/state government, and ranchers, is a driving force behind the project. Walking their ranch, thriving in spite of pollution along the river, the full potential of this project becomes apparent. With tailings areas surrounded by grasslands and grazing cattle, their property is both damaged and functional. If the CFC can keep operations flowing smoothly amidst remediation and recovery efforts, thereby illustrating a union between smart economics and the environment, they could easily inspire similar operations locally and statewide. The true measure of success will come after the cleanup, when ranchers will have either given up the ghost and sold their land to McMansion makers, or remained to preserve the area's cultural traditions on the restored banks of the Clark Fork.

The Milltown Reservoir Sediments Superfund site was the final stop on the day's tour, a twist considering its status as the original indicator of the entire complex. In 1981, a Montana water sanitarian found deadly high arsenic concentrations in the Milltown drinking water and the EPA launched an investigation into the causes. Going further than anyone imagined, to its ultimate source in Butte, one by one the upstream contaminated sites were discovered and linked to the toxic sediments stored in the Milltown Reservoir. The same 1908 flood that spread toxic tailings over the Silver Bow Creek floodplain had done the same with contaminated sediment downstream. After placing Milltown residents on a clean water supply, plans to remove the dam were discussed but not implemented until an ice jam almost breached it in 1996. Because the dam's doors were opened to avoid damage during the jam, toxic sediments stored there were loosed downstream. Following this poisonous sweep, serious discussions about dam removal and reservoir cleanup finally began. Following the construction of a temporary channel for the river, these plans culminated in the 2008 removal of the dam. By rerouting the river beforehand, the accumulated toxic sediments in the reservoir were exposed rather than swept downstream. Ongoing remediation efforts have involved transporting this sediment to the Opportunity Ponds storage area, rebuilding the natural channel and floodplain of the river, and revegetating the formerly toxic areas. Surprising amounts of intact logs were found along the floor of the reservoir, preserved leftovers from the Montana Pole facility which floated logs to Milltown for processing. Today, these logs are being cleaned and used where possible in trail and park construction along the new Clark Fork River floodplain. Even more shocking was that, before all of the contaminated sediment had been transported, workers were finding hundred-year-old seeds germinating after the dam was removed. That these plants could survive being buried beneath 30-40 ft. of toxic sediment for over a century speaks to the resiliency of nature. Planned future work around the site mainly involves completely restoring a vegetated floodplain, with its associated wetlands and off-channel tributaries, to maintain the area's water quality and provide sediment transportation. Additional benefits of this work will include ideal riparian habitat for communities and new trails for the aesthetic enjoyment of humans. Monitoring sediment transportation and water flow will remain crucial to achieving these goals for, as Andrew Wilcox, the lead geomorphologist on the project, pointed out, "Rivers are a lot like humans in that we both need water to circulate our systems. While humans need food, rivers need sediment. Too much of either puts us both out of whack." By keeping in mind our similarities to the natural world then, rather than cultivating anthropocentric egotism, future mistakes like those at Milltown and upstream can be avoided. We never need to remedy and restore lands that we don’t corrupt in the first place.

The Clark Fork River Superfund Tour was enlightening on many levels. To witness the effects of our past pillaging of the land shows the extreme degree to which we can blindly ignore the negative consequences of our actions. To witness the current cleanup efforts, and the successes therein, shows the plucky determination we can exhibit in fixing our mistakes. To witness life remaining and returning, at least in the microcosm of each site, shows that natural processes and systems can always make the best of our degradation. Hopefully the lessons learned at the Clark Fork River Superfund sites will mean that, in the future, our actions won’t make them work so hard.


Tour 4: Managing Wild Lands and Wildlife in the Wild West


Tour 5: Managing Indian Country: Stories of Cooperation and Conflict


An Extraordinary Day in Indian Country, Oct. 14...

"There's a buck," said Germaine White, from her seat on the bus in the National Bison Range on Thursday morning. I looked left expecting a bison. Instead two elk stood on the woods' edge; the buck impressive with his huge rack of antlers. My first elk sighting. "What eyesight!" I replied. "I'm a hunter," White explained. "Not of them though."

White is Information and Education Specialist in the Natural Resources Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She was our main interpreter as we rode north on the Peoples' Highway, Route 93, through the Flathead Indian Reservation. Interpreter of the rich and complex mix of 12,000 years of history, culture, language, and spirit of the Salish. Liaison between her People and “visitors and strangers” like us.

The Bison Range was the first stop on our tour "Managing Indian Country: Stories of Cooperation and Conflict." Farther up the dirt road we were fortunate to see a bison herd, including a brown calf at its mother's legs and two or three dark, bearded bucks. These were maybe a dozen of the 400 bison — microchipped, rounded up, and biotested regularly — on 18,000-plus acres along Mission Creek, Moiese, MT.

Some of us stood up, hoping to get up close and personal. Not to be. We took videos and snapped photos from inside the bus. Visitors are only allowed to walk in specific spots.

This national wildlife refuge is for the bison, not the public. "That you came to see them is nice; not our priority," emphasized Pat Jamieson, the Range's Outdoor Recreation Planner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The animals are our priority."

In White's introduction en route to the range, she'd explained the highest value of animals in the Salish culture, the Elders' stories. "Animals prepared the way for us. They were here before us."

The landscape too is "profoundly important," White said. Living in this Mission Valley for so long has melded her People in "extraordinary depth" with the landscape.


Friday, October 15


Breakfast Plenary — American Treasures: The Future of the National Parks


America's Best Idea and Keeping It That Way


L-R: Dayton Duncan, Holly Fretwell, Theresa Pierno, Jon Jarvis, moderator Paul Rogers. © Photo by Hannah Ryan.

"If we can't make something happen now, I don't know when we can," said Teresa Pierno, executive vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Pierno was one of the plenary speakers on upcoming challenges in national parks. She was joined by Dayton Duncan, a creator of the PBS documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea;" Holly Fretwell, a Montana professor and research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center; and Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. Reconnecting the American public to the natural world was a topic each of the four plenary speakers addressed over Friday's Breakfast Plenary. Jarvis said he disagreed 100 percent that kid's electronics should be taken away from them when getting them outside. He said to let them instantly upload photos to their Facebook when in Yellowstone; that's how they are exploring the park.

The financial trouble in the park system was also a topic of common concern, yet how to balance the backlog had numerous opinions. All concluded that limiting visitors to the parks during high-traffic times of year was not an attractive choice. However, travel to the parks is encouraged during the shoulder months.


Opening Plenary — The Changing West


Opportunities and Challenges in the West

Nobel Laureate Steven Running kicked off the panel by going over changes in climate trends in the West. Running said he didn't have an optimistic view about the future and pointed to average low temperatures on the rise, less precipitation, longer fire seasons, and the pine beetle epidemic all as contributing factors.

University of Colorado at Boulder law professor Charles Wilkinson was more optimistic about trends in the West. Wilkinson said he saw society, economy and landscape intertwining. He also pointed out that people are starting to agree by consensus that wild land is important — with 9.1 million acres of wilderness originally, growing to 13 times that now.

Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe, discussed the ongoing issues of water rights of the tribe and how people are still addressing others' inherent right versus their need for water.

Leslie Weldon, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said in order to ensure the protection of what we want to sustain, we must build partnerships and connections with outsiders.

Greg Schildwachter, with Washington experience and insight, said there was great reason for optimism, and the partisan divide over issues is narrowing.


Concurrent Sessions 1: THE WEST: Conservation Easements and Private Land Protection


Conserving Land with Private Owners


Wendy Ninteman and Mark Rose.
© Photo by Hannah Ryan.

What is a conservation easement?: A voluntary legal agreement between a willing landowner and land trust or government agency that permanently limits the use of the land in order to protect its conservation values.

Speakers on conservation easements included Wendy Ninteman from Land Trust Alliance, Mark Rose with the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and Caroline Byrd from The Nature Conservancy.

Ninteman said the reason people often put their land under an easement is that they have a "really deep connection to that land" and they wish to preserve it for their children and future generations. The Nature Conservancy is the largest conservation agency in the world, but Byrd said it's necessary to work in partnerships to achieve land conservation.

"We've got to work with the communities," Byrd said.

All three speakers agreed that to affect lasting conservation the "freckled patchwork" of protected land needs to be linked and managed under common practices. Missoula's mayor John Engen was quoted in the session. His words seem to highlight what easements, and many other speakers at this conference, are trying to achieve: "When we are all dirt, this will still matter."


Concurrent Sessions 1: THE CLIMATE: Population, Consumption and Climate Change


Concurrent Sessions 1: ENERGY AND THE ECONOMY: Tar Sands from Alberta to Missoula and Beyond


Hedging and Betting on The Tar Sands' Future Footprint


L-R: Moderator Hanneke Brooymans, Peter Hodson, Preston McEachern, Andrew Logan, and Janet Annesley . © Photo by Alex Johnson.

Some day, all roads will lead to Alberta — at least if the Canadian province's vast oil reserve known as the Tar Sands continues its trajectory of development.

According to Janet Annesley, vice president of communications for Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, everything changed for Alberta in 2002, when the United States Department of Energy officially declared the Alberta Tar Sands as an economically and politically feasible source of energy. With a flick of their regulatory pens, the US Department of Energy shifted the landscape of the whole energy-consuming world. As Annesley explained, the Alberta Tar Sands oil reserve constitutes "half the investible oil in the free world."

Oil reserves of unequalled magnitude means environmental impacts and challenges on similar scales. The speakers gathered for the morning session represented voices from all sides of the environmental and regulatory debate. Besides Annesley, Preston McEachern, section head of Science in the Research and Innovation department of Alberta Environment, spoke most favorably for the success of current environmental mitigation efforts among industry and government.

Peter Hodson, a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University, offered a more cautionary perspective on the Tar Sands development. Having taken part in several environmental studies in the Tar Sands region, Hodson said how presenting his findings to the governing bodies was like "waving a red flag against a white wall."

Offering a conciliatory middle-ground, Andrew Logan, director of the Oil & Gas Industry Program at CERES, did not outright condemn the Tar Sands development, but said that the "full costs of the Tar Sands project is fairly opaque." Logan advocated for a wider economic model that included the social, climate, and water quality effects.

Despite the contentious subject and notwithstanding a few tense moments, Hanneke Brooymans, environmental reporter at the Edmonton Journal, kept the session's conversation productive. Members from the crowd hit on the myriad issues orbiting the Tar Sands, from the proposed Keystone Energy pipeline through the eastern plain states, to the heavy haul of Exxon and ConocoPhillips modules through wild and scenic highways of Idaho and Montana.

The session ended with more questions than answers. However, in response to an audience member's question, McEachern did offer one sobering certitude: "we will never be able to restore this landscape to what it was originally."


Concurrent Sessions 1: POLLUTION AND SOLUTIONS: Covering Reproductive Health and the Environment


The Power of the Female Consumer

Three women whose jobs focus on the correlation between human health and the environment spoke in an SEJ session Friday, called "Pollution and Solution: Covering Reproductive Health and the Environment." The panel centered mainly on women's reproductive health impacts due to environmental chemicals, and how changes can be made to ensure a safer environment for our children.

Erin Thompson Switalski, executive director for Women’s Voices for the Earth, said that consumer demands can often lead to corporations ridding their products of harmful chemicals much quicker than the government could. "Women as consumers can be very powerful," she said, referring to a couple of women-led protests outside Albertson's stores that led to the company’s putting labels on their fish with high levels of mercury. Tracey Woodruff, UC San Francisco's director for the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, said that "consumers are shopping under false pretenses." She meant that many companies, especially those who sell personal care products like shampoo, are not always completely safety tested, and that the chemicals in their products can negatively affect women and the babies that they have.

The panel also gave insight into certain chemicals to look out for, such as phthalates and parabens. For more information on harmful cosmetics, go to the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetic Safety Database. 


Concurrent Sessions 1: THE SOAPBOX: Environmentalists Split Over Wilderness Deals



The long running tug-of-war between idealists and pragmatists unmasked itself in a small-room discussion of SEJ members and a trio of speakers in the University Center on Friday afternoon. They were discussing wilderness issues, focusing on John Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act."

John Adams, capitol bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune, moderated the discussion in which Martin Nie said that the idealist/pragmatist conflict is one he's closely observed a professor of natural resource policy in UM's College of Forestry and Conservation. Legislative campaign director for the Montana Wilderness Association Tim Baker responded that the conflict exists within all issues facing society as a necessary element of every equation. Baker views it as a benign conundrum.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, disagreed. The room chuckled at the irony. Nickas said that he has watched the conflict disintegrate coalitions of environmentalists into incommunicative factions.

Adams and the speaker panel cut the fat from the mainstream media drama on this important issue of wilderness land management. Listen to the audio clip (to be posted soon) for more on one of Montana's most important environmental debates.


Concurrent Sessions 2: THE CRAFT: Working with Citizen Journalists and Community Contributors


Variety, Surprise and Experimentation

Now that the giddiness over citizen journalism has begun to reduce into a thick mixture of business failures and successes, SEJ held a craft session on the subject moderated by Amy Gahran, senior editor of Oakland Local.

"Be open to a variety of content. Be open to the element of surprise. And experiment," Gahran advised.

Present as speakers on the panel were editors from the trailblazing websites of NewWest and OnEarth, as well as Peggy Kuhr, Dean of UM's School of Journalism and Dan Gunderson, reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

Gunderson promoted the Public Insight Network, which essentially acts as a listserv positing queries to participants as a way to glean new stories. Gunderson noted its effectiveness in reaching rural areas and tribal territories.

One audience member, a graduate student from Montana State University, asked whether or not citizen journalists actually serve to cheapen journalistic standards and undercut wages for emerging professionals.

Moderator Gahran challenged that journalists must diversify their choice of jobs and that citizen or community journalism may not be the market for career journalists.

Recorded audio happened to fail during this panel discussion, but visit the speakers' websites for more clues about the power and efficacy of this new journalistic brand.


Concurrent Sessions 2: THE CRAFT 2: Three Environmentalists Walk into a Bar... A Humor Workshop


When the News Gets Sad, Strip

Not surprisingly, the humor craft session started with laughs. Jim Poyser, managing editor, NUVO Newsweekly and co-founder of The ApocaDocs, proved the impact of humor with an entertaining (and PG) striptease, unveiling a shirt emblazoned with "Climate Change Hottie" on the front, and a startling climate change fact on the back: scientists at MIT predict a 9 degree fahrenheit increase in temperatures.

"It's just about the least funny issue," said Poyser. "But we need to create a space for people to engage with it." That's just what happened over the course of the session.

Members of the session offered to each other a wide array of recent environmental journalism, editorials, and satire. Below, you'll find links to some of the best humorous clips and stories identified during the session:

While the majority of the session was show-and-tell, the conversation ultimately came to some big questions nagging environmental journalism: With so much competition, how do we get the public's attention? What are the ethical boundaries for journalists who want to incorporate humor? How do we navigate the changing landscape of mainstream media? As one audience member said, "all the categories are up in the air."

And despite the general consensus that humor can engage audiences, Poyser said it best: "It's hard to be funny about how horrifying this is."


Concurrent Sessions 2: THE WEST: A Water Primer: Pollution, Rights, Species and Utilities


Water Rights and Pollution

Four people whose jobs often intersect with the laws and pollution connected with local water sources spoke Friday in an SEJ session titled, "The West, A Water Primer: Pollution, Rights, Species and Utilities." The panel focused mainly on where water pollution comes from and the "skyrocketing" prices of water rights.

According to Tom Henry, an environmental writer for The (Toledo) Blade, "You can't study water pollution without also looking at air pollution." He said that pipe output and land runoff are large factors in the pollution of water, but he also noted that many places that don't have those problems still show high signs of pollution from the atmosphere, that lead to things like high levels of mercury in the water.

Michelle Bryan Mudd, who is an assistant professor at the UM School of Law, hit on the differences and overlaps between land use and water law, and gave insight into the current system we have on this side of the country under prior appropriation laws.

The question and answer session also yielded some interesting points, including the pros and cons of water conservation. For more information on water pollution, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Environmental Health page.


Concurrent Sessions 2: THE CLIMATE: The Business of Climate Change


Concurrent Sessions 2: ENERGY AND THE ECONOMY: Covering Western Coal: Surface Mining Beyond Appalachia


Coal Through the Eyes of an Economist, Lawyer and Mine Director


L-R: Moderator Don Hopey with speakers Jenny Harbine, Marion Loomis and Thomas Power. © Photo by Hannah Ryan.

How are carbon emissions dealt with in Western coal mining and what does the future hold?

Speakers on this topic included Jenny Harbine, attorney with Earthjustice; Marion Loomis, with the Wyoming Mining Association; and Thomas Power, University of Montana professor of economics.

Water and air pollution are two of the direct impacts of coal mining and combustion. An indirect impact of mining and combustion is global warming. With Montana and Wyoming harboring some of the largest fossil fuel reserves, those environmental concerns demand constant attention. Loomis said it costs about $15 to send coal dug in Wyoming 1,000 miles. Once that coal reaches a coast, the cost to send it by boat to overseas locations is even cheaper. China's purchasing of U.S. coal has become a recently debated practice.

Power said the press often picks up on the popular or folk economics of the time. In response to a statement by Senator Baucus claiming that Montana is dominated by the coal industry, Power presented differing statistics. He said coal mining within the state employs only 1,000 people, a fraction of a percent of Montana's estimated 600,000 jobs. "That ain't hardly economic domination," Power said.


Concurrent Sessions 2: THE SANDBOX: Midterm Elections and the Environment


Is the Environment a Priority When Voting?

Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani LLP works with multinational corporations as well as government officials in Washington. To start the discussion, Maisano said environmental issues simply don’t matter as much in politics when it comes to voting. He said people care about unemployment, taxes, foreign policy, war and even social issues like abortion more in voting for certain candidates. Maisano emphasized that especially in these midterm elections, jobs are on everyone’s minds, not environmental issues.

Tony Massaro with the League of Conservation Voters said environmental issues are political issues and voters are taking a stance. Massaro cited California Proposition 23 as an example of how voters prioritize climate change and energy matters.

When it came to the Tea Party, Maisano said they had a very short term focus and people were overestimating their influence. Massaro said the Tea Party has done a great job in splitting the Republican Party and making energy an issue when the Democrats aren’t necessarily focusing on it as a priority.


Afternoon Plenary — Lessons From the Gulf


NOAA Administrator, Panel Speak on Remediation Efforts in the Gulf


L-R: Jane Lubchenco, Christopher D'Elia, Doug Rader, Kyle Isakower, moderator Mark Schleifstein. © Photo by Kate Lutz.

This panel discussed the Deepwater Horizon spill, specifically focusing on how this and earlier disasters benefit future remediation efforts.

"I think the lessons here are how we are going to respond next time," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Lubchenco pointed to the Exxon-Valdez spill of 1989 and the resulting Oil Pollution Act passed in 1990 as guidelines for how NOAA and other government agencies have handled remediation and rebuilding.

Despite glaring differences between the two spills, Lubchenco said the remediation has worked admirably. According to Lubchenco, 75 percent of the oil has either been skimmed, drained, or dissipated using chemicals. The rest, she said, has dissolved into beads the size of the width of a human hair, and will be naturally broken down by native gulf organisms.

Panel member Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed that remediation efforts were effective, but added that drilling in the Gulf is here to stay, and that government oversight of drilling evolves at the same pace as the industry itself.

Kyle Isakower, vice president of Regulatory and Economic Policy at the American Petroleum Institute, and Christopher D'Elia, dean of the School for Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, rounded out the panel.

Mark Schleifstein of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune served as moderator. 


Beat Dinner 6: Making Freelancing Work — New Markets, Multimedia, Multiple Sales


SEJ freelancers Karen Schaefer and Meera Subramanian hosted this beat dinner to share information about how to make the freelance life work, at least a little better. Here's their resulting resource list. (For more, also see SEJ's Freelance page.)


Saturday, October 16


Breakfast Plenary — Wolves, Grizzlies and Humans: Where's the Balance?


Great Predators, Great Contentions: Perspectives on Gray Wolf and Grizzly Bear Recovery Efforts in the Rocky Mountain West


L-R: Moderator Scott McMillion, Elaine Allestad, Suzanne Stone, Dan Pletscher, Tim Aldrich, Montana Wildlife Federation. © Photo by Matthew Coomer.

If anything was made clear during the breakfast plenary on Saturday, October 16th, it's that the future of great predators and their management in the West remains in flux.

In regards to the gray wolf and grizzly bear especially, lingering disagreements over the Endangered Species Act (ESA), state management plans, and public opinions concerning recovery efforts persists. From frustrated ranchers trying to operate under shifting federal and state management plans to the Defenders of Wildlife trying to guarantee long-term species viability in those plans, this discussion illustrated some of the most important issues surrounding predator management today. These topics include: the importance of population connectivity in ensuring species viability, livestock predation, hunter vs. wildlife management officials in regulating population growth, and broader goals concerning the reintroduction of a species.

With so many questions in play, and no universally accepted solutions, this discussion and the disagreements therein are likely barometers for ones surrounding this issue worldwide.


Concurrent Sessions 3: THE WEST: Trans-boundary Issues: Pollution and Wildlife Migration


Concurrent Sessions 3: THE CLIMATE: Energy Issues on Tribal Lands


Native Energy and Environmental Justice Issues


L-R: Gail Small, Alexis Bonogofsky, Rob McDonald, Patrick Spears.
© Photo by Kate Lutz.

Gail Small, executive director of Native Action, started the "Energy Issues on Tribal Lands" session with an anecdote about when she was a teenager in Lame Deer. She and her classmates blocked the passage of large coal extraction machinery entering their land. It was the start of her activism.

Panelists tried to stress some key points about the nature of tribal issues covered by the press. Alexis Bonogofsky, a 4th generation Montana rancher and coordinator for the Tribal Lands Conservation Program, emphasized the complexity of Indian affairs. She advised journalists to contextualize their stories by learning the tribal and legislative histories of the people they cover.

Rob McDonald supported her point. A professional journalist for 15 years, he now works to enhance the public image of the Salish-Kootenai as communications director for the tribal council. He told journalists that the success of their stories depends on their comprehension of the working pieces in tribal governments.

The most vivid expressions came from Patrick Spears, NativeEnergy board member and co-founder/president of the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy. He said the coal that filters our water, and provides breath as the lungs of our Mother Earth, has been taken away. Spears works with water issues on the Missouri River. It's time, now, he said, for healing.


Concurrent Sessions 3: ENERGY AND THE ECONOMY: Is Biomass Power Really Green?


Biomass: Renewable Energy Option or Kissing Cousin to Coal?


L-R: Moderator Bruce Ritchie, Margaret Sheehan, Dave Atkins, Conrad Schneider, Bill Carlson. © Photo by Matthew Coomer.

For better or worse, biomass energy has attracted an incredible amount of attention. As the discussion session "Energy and the Economy — Is Biomass Power Really Green?" illustrated, however, it's too early to count on or out this potential power source.

To some, it offers the promise of renewable energy through burning woody waste products in lieu of coal. Advocates such as Bill Carlson, a steering committee member of the Biomass Power Association, believe that through utilizing carbon currently on the landscape, rather than stored underground, biomass offers another counter to global warming.

Biomass opponents like Margaret Sheehan, executive director of the Biomass Accountability Project, disagree. Her group believes the health impacts of burning biomass are more severe than those of coal, and that the industry's standards of what constitutes burnable materials are too tenuous to be trusted. In her opinion, "The only thing green about biomass is the profits of the industry."

While most states include biomass as part of their renewable energy platform, few have taken substantial actions to incorporate it on a wide scale. This discussion showed biomass energy as offering either a promising solution to, or dangerous setback in the current move towards green energy.


Concurrent Sessions 3: POLLUTION AND SOLUTIONS: Community Disaster: Libby’s Deadly Asbestos Dust


Libby's Asbestos Problem Far From Over

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider broke the story on the toxic asbestos in Libby in 1999 and started off the SEJ panel by telling the audience that asbestos is still not strictly outlawed in the US.

WR Grace operated a vermiculite mine in Libby from 1963 to 1990 and hundreds of locals have since died or been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and are still being diagnosed to this day. University of Montana law professor Andrew King-Ries worked with a group of UM law and journalism students a few years ago on the Libby asbestos story. King-Ries said even though Grace officials were acquitted in last year's criminal cases, there is a distinction between being "innocent" and "not guilty."

Many of the panelists said that Grace knew of the dangers of the asbestos-laden vermiculite but kept hundreds employed there for years regardless of the danger.

Gregory Meeker with the US Geological Survey said that the prosecution was difficult in the court cases because the tremolite mineral found in asbestos was re-named in the 1970s to winchite which made the communication in court nearly impossible. Libby resident and victim advocate, Gayla Benefield, said she thinks people will still be diagnosed for the next two generations.


Concurrent Sessions 3: THE SANDBOX : The Return of Nuclear Power: Coming to a Town Near You?


Concurrent Sessions 3: THE SOAPBOX : Sponsored Research: It's Not Just Following the Money


Research Not Affected By Sponsors, Most of the Time


Ronald Kendall (left) and Randy Loftis. © Photo by Hannah Ryan.

Is there something wrong with research being impacted by funders?

"I don't think so but bias can creep in," Ronald Kendall said. "I believe that the truth will ultimately win."

Kendall is the director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. In his research he has studied toxin impacts on insects, quail, widgeon, amphibians and sea turtles, among other wildlife. His funding has come from a variety of sources such as federal grants, private corporations and non-profit organizations.

Yet on the topic of the BP oil spill Kendall had different emotions about the role of the research sponsor. The morning he testified before Congress on the danger of dispersants being used in the Gulf of Mexico to break up the oil, he heard the current administration saying on the Today Show that 75 percent of the oil was cleaned up. That was not what he was in Washington that day to tell the government.

The current atmosphere of the United States is a difficult place for scientific research, he said. "Young professors are very vulnerable right now," Kendall said. "We're broke, and we need money for our research."


Concurrent Sessions 4: THE CRAFT: Non-Profit Environmental Journalism: Here To Stay


Concurrent Sessions 4: COMPUTER WORKSHOP: Storytelling Online — Choosing Your Media


Concurrent Sessions 4: THE WEST: Tribes and Salmon: Making News in the Northwest


Northwest Tribes and Their Spiritual, Economic, and Legal Connection to Salmon

Chuck Brushwood, policy analyst for the Fish and Wildlife Department of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, began the session by discussing and introducing the effect of hatcheries on the decline of wild salmon. He said that at the Colville hatchery, they're using passive gears to collect the salmon, harvest only the hatchery fish, then release the wild ones back into spawning grounds, assuring they're only harvesting what is meant to be harvested. The wild fish remain wild and can continue their life cycle up river.

Joe Hovenkotter, staff attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, showed a map of tribal land and indicated the rivers and tributaries running through them. According to Article III of the Treaty of Hellgate, "The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams running through or bordering said [Flathead] [R]eservation is further secured to said Indians...," which Hovenkotter used to cite problems that could arise in damming Flathead rivers or developing the areas further.

Charles Hudson, manager and director of Governmental Affairs for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, could not attend the session as scheduled. However, Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce tribe, was able to fill in for him. She said there are many things affecting the decline of salmon populations, but you can't pinpoint one thing as a primary cause, so it's important that all players work together to keep populations going. She also said ceremonial and subsistence needs are primary for the tribes, so that is where their focus is.

Everyone agreed that the four H's (hydropower, harvest, habitat, and hatcheries) are all to blame for population decline, and advised the journalists present to look into each of these areas to find stories.


Concurrent Sessions 4: THE CLIMATE: Can Geo-Engineering Save Us?


Geo-Engineering: A Technological Quick Fix or Our Best Hope?


© Photo by Matthew Coomer.

Of the many important questions discussed during "Can Geo-Engineering Save Us?", a panel discussion on geo-engineering technology, perhaps none had the gravitas of "Who has the moral authority to take control of the world's thermostat?” Asked by Dane Scott, director of UM's Center for Ethics, it characterizes the apprehensions surrounding geo-engineering, new technologies that enable humans to manually affect the climate.

Originally intended as a last resort for global warming, its broader potential, for business and military purposes, have many fearing the worst during its development. Despite geo-engineering's formidable potential, researchers like David Keith, director of the University of Calgary Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy's Energy and Environmental Systems Group, argue it could be used in tandem with emissions reduction efforts to safely mitigate human impacts on the climate. He believes that if implemented carefully and responsibly, geo-engineering could be a valuable part of efforts to preserve current climates and the biomes therein. Keith's main fear is a headlong rush into this promising technology without the proper thought put into its ramifications. "Technology traditionally moves faster than our ethical capacity to absorb that technology."

In the end, research into geo-engineering will continue and likely break into the mainstream consciousness within a few years. Its potential to benefit society is simply too great to be ignored, especially as global warming and its unpredictable effects are only just beginning.


Concurrent Sessions 4: ENERGY AND THE ECONOMY: Clean Energy Economy and the Environment


Concurrent Sessions 4: POLLUTION AND SOLUTIONS: Nanotechnology: The Smallest Miracle or the Largest Disaster?


Concurrent Sessions 4: THE SANDBOX: Translating ToSCA


Lunch Plenary — U.S. Energy Frontiers: Beyond the Gulf Disaster


What's Next for U.S. Energy?

John Daley, a reporter for KSL 5 News in Salt Lake City, moderated the event, which included Karen Harbert, director of the US Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy; Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity; Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Randy Udall, an independent energy consultant and former director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas — USA.

Conversation got quite heated in Saturday's lunch plenary as a panel of experts representing several sides of the climate change issue debated what should yet be done, and should have been done, to prevent and clean up the energy mess the nation currently finds itself in.

Several of the panelists were critical of the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, saying if resources are being depleted then the country should be moving toward sustainable alternatives rather than trying to squeeze more oil from the earth.

"We have to make a choice," Harbert said. There's no way to flip a switch overnight and switch to a different energy source, she said. We use the resources we have here, or we depend on imported oil, "that's a fundamental choice we have to make."

Harbert said that although it's going to take a while for the nation to completely detach itself from fossil fuels, the Chamber of Commerce is doing what it can to speed up the process, including sending a list to President Obama with 90 recommendations on how to grow the economy and improve the environment. However, she still stressed that people need to be patient with them. "We need to be more realistic in how we do it and the time frame."

Suckling had his own ideas for curbing America's oil dependence. He said we aren't doing the things we need to in order to get where we want to go in terms of energy sources and consumption. Suckling suggests focusing on reigning in offshore drilling, "starting with Alaska." He said if a spill the magnitude of BP's in the Gulf were to happen in Alaska, there would be no way to contain it because of the distances between drilling sites and the coast guard and ice cutters.

Udall called upon the journalists present to educate themselves on the history of the issues and inform the public of them responsibly and fairly. "We need as writers and journalists to understand the energy basis better than we already do." Journalists can't write about energy, he said, "without having a broad view that goes back 100 or 200 or 300 years."

The panel discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience, and went until time could not be pressed further.


Mini-tour 1: Gimme Shelter: Bird Migrations and the National Wildlife Refuge System


SEJ’s 20th Anniversary Party: Last Call at the Last Run Inn

  • Footage from the Saturday night festivities in the chalet at the base of Montana Snowbowl's ski slopes, posted on behalf of videographer and SEJ member Michael Scott, environment reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, OH: The Founders' Ceremony and Dance Party (with entertainment by the most excellent Big Sky Mudflaps)
  • Event description.


Sunday, October 17


Breakfast with the Authors


This is not our grandparents' West but our grandchildren's, one panelist suggests, and we have a moral imperative to protect it. Our esteemed authors explore the "wild landscape within" — where we might find solace, inspiration and strength for the difficult work ahead — suggest that the fierce independence emblematic of the region must be tempered with the will to cooperate, and challenge environmental journalists to combine the telling of science with an imperative for change. As with past breakfasts with the authors, this evocative conversation includes the audience in a big way and concludes with a sometimes-divergent panel spiritedly rallying around a common theme.


Miscellaneous conference coverage:



Post-conference tour to Glacier Park. © Photo by Maurita Cardone.

"Alpinist's 'Extreme Ice' Time-Lapse Photos An Antidote to Those 'Short Attention Spans'," The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, October 21, 2010. (Long-time mountaineer and Montanan Conrad Anker showed slides of his climbs around the world during the Ceres, Climate Solutions and North Face independent hospitality reception on Thurs. Oct. 14.) 

"Random Soundbites from the SEJ Montana Conference Goings-on," The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, October 21, 2010.

"SEJ's 'Changing West' Annual Conference: Climate and Much More for 700-Plus Attendees," by Bud Ward, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, October 21, 2010.

"Journo conference highlights Native American issues," by Terri Hansen, A Just West blog, High Country News, October 22, 2010.

"Floating Islands: Using Garbage to Clean Polluted Water," by Marc Gunther, GreenerDesign blog,, October 25, 2010.

"More from Montana and the Society of Environmental Journalists," by Chris Woodside,, October 26, 2010.

"Cooling Down Our Planet," by Don Corrigan, South County Times, November 5, 2010.


Pre-conference Montana environmental stories:


"Society of Environmental Journalists convention in Missoula this week"
Highlights of the upcoming SEJ conference, including an interview with James Bruggers, an SEJ board member, conference co-chair, environmental reporter for The Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky and University of Montana alum. By Chelsi Moy of The Missoulian, October 9, 2010.

"Feds nix state's proposed wolf hunt"
USFWS Deputy Director Daniel Ashe responded to Montana state officials' request to remove 12 wolves from the West Fork of the Bitterroot, saying "they can't approve the state's request for a permit that would have allowed an abridged fall 2010 wolf hunt because that action probably would lead to additional, successful legal challenges." By Eve Byron of the Independent Record, Helena, MT, October 8, 2010.

"Montana's melting glaciers: The poster-child for climate change"
"As recently as 100 years ago, Montana's Glacier National Park had more than 150 glaciers throughout its more than one million acres. In 2005 only 27 remained. Today the total is down to a just 25 and those that are left are mere remnants of their former frozen selves. With warmer temperatures and changes to the water cycle, scientists predict Glacier National Park will be glacier-free by 2030." By Jessica Ellis of CNN, October 7, 2010.

"Missoula Fire Sciences Lab's 50 years of understanding fire behavior on display"
"All that heritage goes on display this Saturday when the lab conducts its public rededication ceremony.... Visitors will also get to tour the lab facilities, including the tall west-end tower that holds the world's largest controlled combustion chamber for testing fire behavior. Research forester Mark Finney gave an advance demonstration of some of its features on Thursday, including a fire wall and a fire whirl chamber." By Rob Chaney of The Missoulian, September 16, 2010. SEJ conference attendees will get a couple of chances to tour the Lab.

"Bear Safely Removed from Downtown Missoula Tree"
A 70-pound yearling black bear visits Missoula near the theater, climbs a tree, is darted while he relaxes and swings his paws, tumbles into a waiting net, and is subsequently relocated outside the city. Australian visitors captured it all with stills and video. By Rob Chaney of The Missoulian, September 8, 2010.

"Deadly Encounters with Wild Animals"
People cross paths with bear, moose, mountain lion, wolf or bison in Montana, the location of this year's annual SEJ conference. These potentially dangerous situations are often a result of ignoring the simple equation: "wildlife plus distance equals safety" — for both human and animal. By Elizabeth Harrison of the Great Falls Tribune, August 29, 2010.

"Wildfire Breaks Out in Packer Meadows, Atop Lolo Pass"
"A 10-acre wildfire erupted Monday afternoon on Lolo Pass, hours after the Lolo National Forest announced the Siegel Creek fire southeast of Paradise was reduced to monitoring status." By Kim Briggeman of The Missoulian, July 26, 2010.

"The Fight for the Flathead: Environmental Victories Come in Increments, Not Meetings"
SEJ 2010 conference co-chair Ray Ring took flight at the National Governors Conference in Whitefish with some conservationists to see and hear about efforts to protect a special landscape that SEJ members will have the opportunity to see and learn about during conference tours and panels this fall. By Ray Ring of High Country News, July 19, 2010.

"Chadwick Finds 'The Wolverine Way' in Glacier"
"Author Doug Chadwick's main characters are inevitably long in tooth and claw, with great, hairy, formidable reputations, wild and woolly and fiercely independent." By Michael Jamison of The Missoulian, June 17, 2010.

"Environmental Journalists: Endangered Species?"
Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin writes about the importance of environmental journalism. Missoula Editor, June 10, 2010. 


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