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Source: Society, July-August 1999 v36 i5 p63(7).

Title: Ridding the United States of chemical warfare material.
Author: Milton E. Blackwood Jr.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1999 Transaction Publishers

The United States is bound by Congressional law and international treaty requirements to destroy its entire arsenal of chemical warfare material. Public attention has largely focused on the Army's efforts to destroy this country's so-called stockpile of chemical warfare material which originally included some 31,000 tons of chemical agents stored at eight sites in the continental United States and on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. Citing the rising costs and increasing risks of maintaining this aging and deteriorating stockpile, the Congress passed legislation, in 1985 and 1992, that required the Army to destroy this material. The Army originally planned to build incineration facilities at each stockpile storage location to carry out on-site disposal of the chemical warfare material. Some environmental groups and concerned citizens, who question the safety of incineration, have strongly objected to this disposal option. Their objections have delayed the construction of disposal facilities and have motivated Congress to order the Army to research alternative disposal technologies. Currently only two incinerators are operational and, since 1985, the Army's cost estimate for the stockpile disposal program has increased from $1.7 billion to $15.7 billion and its projected completion date has been extended from 1994 to 2007.

Several accidental discoveries of buried chemical weapons on civilian-owned sites have demonstrated that the stockpile material is not the country's only chemical weapons problem. In 1992, Congress also recognized this, and ordered the Army to dispose of chemical warfare material not included in the stockpile. This "non-stockpile" material includes not only buried chemical material, but also binary chemical weapons (munitions termed binary contain two separated, non-lethal chemicals that react to produce a lethal chemical when mixed during battlefield delivery), former chemical weapons production facilities, recovered chemical weapons, and other miscellaneous chemical Warfare material. Burial was a common chemical weapons disposal option in past decades and is the biggest challenge for the non-stockpile disposal program. The Army has already identified 224 potential burial sites in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands and estimates that it will take well into the next century and require nearly 95% of the $15.7 billion projected budget for the non-stockpile program to identify, recover, and dispose of all buried materials.

The United States commitment to destroy its chemical weapons went beyond a national requirement to an international one when, on April 24, 1997, the United States Senate gave its advice and consent for the ratification of the United Nations sponsored Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC prohibits not only the use, production, purchase, and transfer of chemical weapons, but also requires its parties to destroy their existing chemical weapons and their production facilities. The treaty dictates that the United States destroy its unitary and binary chemical weapons, recovered chemical weapons, and chemical weapons production facilities by April 2007, and all other miscellaneous chemical warfare material by April 2002. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international forum that oversees compliance with the CWC, can grant a 5-year extension to these dates on a one-time basis. The CWC does not designate the means of destruction to be utilized, but prohibits disposal by dumping into a body of water, land burial, or open-pit burning and requires that the chosen technology destroy the chemical agent in an irreversible manner that also protects the safety of humans and the environment.

The CWC does not call for the obligatory the disposal of buried chemical warfare material. According to Article III (paragraph 2), "The provisions of this Article and the relevant provision of Part IV of the Verification Annex shall not, at the discretion of a State Party, apply to chemical weapons buried on its territory before 1 January 1977 and which remain buried...." If a member nation decides to recover buried material, however, the material is then subject to the declaration and disposal requirements of the CWC. All the burial locations in the United States predate 1977, but by not allowing this material to "remain buried," the United States must now destroy this material in a manner that complies with the requirements of the CWC.

The U.S. Stockpile of Chemical Warfare Material

Of the original 31,000 tons of agent in the stockpile of some 28,000 tons of nerve agents - VX, GB (Satin), and GA (Tabun) - and mustard agents remain stored at Umatilla Chemical Depot (Oregon), Deseret Chemical Depot (Utah), Pueblo Depot Activity (Colorado), Pine Bluff Chemical Activity (Arkansas), Anniston Chemical Activity (Alabama), Blue Grass Chemical Activity (Kentucky), Edgewood Chemical Activity (Maryland), Newport Chemical Activity (Indiana), and Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The chemical agents exist in variety of containers (aerial spray tanks and bulk containers) and munitions (bombs, land mines, rockets, artillery projectiles, and mortar projectiles) which complicates their disposal. Many of the munitions also have associated explosives or propellants, known collectively as energetics, which further complicate their disposal.

The poor condition of the stockpile was a major factor in Congress's decision to order its destruction. All of the stockpile agents and munitions were produced prior to 1969 and many are now more than 50 years old. Between 1970 and 1997, the Army discovered more than 4,000 leaking munitions. The biggest safety concern for the Army is the stability of thousands of M-55 rockets loaded with the nerve agents VX and GB. The propellants in these rockets can breakdown in a manner that could lead to autoignition. As of November 1998, more than 87,000 M-55s have been destroyed, but many thousands still remain. Although the Army believes the stockpile - including the M-55 rockets - will remain stable until its disposal is completed, it will continue to closely monitor the stockpile.

Stockpile Disposal Efforts

The Army's Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program (CSDP) decided, in 1985, to use on-site incinerators to destroy chemical weapons to avoid expected public opposition to the transport of chemical warfare agents to centralized facilities. The process involves the removal of the energetic (if present) and the draining of the chemical agent from its munition or container. Four waste streams are then produced: the agent, the metal munition body or container, the energetic, and any associated packing material. That each of these streams can all be destroyed by incineration is seen by the Army as a major advantage of this technology. Each product is incinerated in a separate furnace, and the gaseous and solid waste is treated by a pollution abatement system. Solid waste is eventually disposed in waste landfills and exhaust gases are discharged through smokestacks. The emissions from the smokestacks are continuously monitored to ensure that potentially harmful emitted materials are well below allowed concentrations.

While the Army has argued that risks associated with continued storage greatly outweigh those associated with its incineration technology, concerns of some citizens and environmental groups about the safety of this technology have lead to additional state and local environmental regulations and lawsuits that have delayed the Army's ability to obtain building permits for new incinerators. Despite original claims by the Army that the stockpile would be destroyed by 1994, only slightly more than 13.5% of the stockpile had been destroyed by March 1999, and just two of the baseline incineration disposal facilities are operational (on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean and at the Tooele Army Depot in Utah). The Army is now also developing and testing alternative disposal based on neutralization technologies at two stockpile sites, Aberdeen and Newport, where agents are only stored in bulk containers. Neutralization involves reacting the chemical warfare agent with a second chemical to produce a less toxic compound. Because neutralization may not irreversibly destroy an agent, it alone may not satisfy the CWC requirements for disposal. At each site, a second process, biodegradation at Aberdeen and supercritical water oxidation at Newport, will be utilized to ensure complete agent destruction.

Non-stockpile Chemical Material

Although the number of chemical munitions and amount of chemical agent included in the US non-stockpile material are less than in the stockpile, the disposal of non-stockpile material will be at least as challenging. Not only are there many more non-stockpile sites, but at these sites are chemical agents not present in the stockpile, identified non-stockpile agents include blister agents (sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, and lewisite); nerve agents (GA, GB, and VX); blood agents (hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride); and a choking agent (chlorine and phosgene). The condition of the non-stockpile material is far more variable than that of the stockpile material and much is still unknown about the amounts and conditions of chemical material that is currently buried. Burial was considered be a final disposal solution for obsolete chemical weapons in the past, and thorough record keeping of this activity was rare. Even at sites where chemical weapons are known to be buried, the amounts, types, and conditions of the agents are often unknown. Recovery of the weapons does not necessarily end the problem, as years of deterioration often will have obscured identifying markers on many of the recovered weapons.

The potential danger that buried chemical weapons present was revealed when accidental discoveries by the public have occurred at Fort Lewis, Washington, D.C., where a World War I era chlorine-filled projectile was found during construction of a housing development, and near the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson, where 260 vials of chemical agents were found. Fortunately, by the time the United States acquired large amounts of the most deadly chemical warfare agents, the nerve agents, burial was a less common disposal choice for chemical material and most chemical material recovered by the non-stockpile project has been either mustard agents, produced from the time of World War I, or agents now considered industrial chemical. The recovered chemical weapons containing nerve agents are more likely to be found at military firing ranges than in areas with significant public access.

Neither the Fort Lewis incident nor the Jackson incident resulted in any injuries. The safety risks that abandoned chemical weapons present for the public also have been demonstrated in other countries. Agents disposed of in closed containers (like much of the buried agents discovered thus far) can remain active for many years. French and Belgian bomb disposal teams still recover tons of World War I era unexploded chemical munitions every year, many still quite dangerous. The Danish government has reported hundreds of accounts of Danish fishermen catching in their nets former German chemical weapons, dumped into the Baltic Sea after World War II, and some incidents have resulted in serious bums or even death for fishermen who handled the material. In addition, China has reported that thousands of injuries had resulted from chemical weapons left in that country by Japan after World War II, including 20 injured students when 50 chemical bombs were unearthed on a middle school campus in China's Hebei province.

In the United States, the Army has identified 224 potential burial sites at 96 locations in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. Of the 96 locations, 45 are on formerly used defense sites (FUDS), and 51 are on current Department of Defense installations. The FUDS are now under private ownership or under the control of other governmental agencies. Of the total of 224 potential sites, the Army has decided that 56 require no further action. Once a potential site is identified by the Army, for safety reasons that site remains on the Army's list indefinitely to ensure that the site is treated with care in the future. In addition, potential overseas chemical weapons burial sites have been identified, but their locations are kept confidential by the Army. Reports that the US military will not clean up testing grounds around the Panama Canal, believed to contain chemical munitions and other explosives, that it will turn over to the Panamanian government by December 31, 1999 have caused protests. According to the provisions of the CWC, nations that have abandoned chemical weapons on others' territories have the responsibility for their removal and disposal.

In contrast to buried chemical weapons, the Army possesses much more complete information about the four other categories of non-stockpile material. Much of this material already has been located and inventoried, and its disposal is commencing.

Binary chemical weapons. Binary weapons were developed in the 1980s to replace the aging unitary chemical weapons stockpile before the US decided to abandon its chemical warfare capabilities altogether. Binary weapons were constructed, stored, and transported with one of the nonlethal agents within the munition and the other nonlethal agent produced, stored, and transported separately for safety and security reasons. The second agent was only to be loaded into the munition on the battlefield immediately prior to delivery.

The United States military developed or tested three binary weapons systems - the multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) munitions, the bigeye bombs, and the M687 155-millimeter binary artillery projectiles. The MLRS binary munition never reached full-scale development. Prototype production facilities and equipment are currently either in layaway status or storage. The Navy developed the bigeye bomb to be dropped from jet aircraft. The weapon was designed to mix a liquid precursor (QL) and sulfur powder to form the nerve agent VX which would then be spread over the desired target. Two hundred bigeye test weapons were produced prior to termination of the project. The Army's M687 artillery projectile was the only binary weapon that went into full-scale production. The projectile employed two liquid precursors, DF and isopropyl alcohol (OPA), to form the nerve agent, GB. More than 200,000 of the M687s were eventually manufactured by the Army.

Recovered chemical weapons. Recovered chemical weapons include weapons retrieved from range-clearing operations, research and test sites, and burial sites. The amount of chemical agents in the recovered non-stockpile material is much less than that in the stockpile. All the material recovered thus far contains only on the order of hundreds of tons of agent and could, in theory, be placed in a single 25 by 80 foot storage building. This amount will change as more material is recovered from burial sites, but the Army does not expect this total to increase greatly. This, however, does not mean that the disposal of recovered material is an easy task. Not only are many more sites involved, but much of the recovered material is quite deteriorated and contains unknown chemical agents.

Of the 8,111 items thus recovered: 1,465 items are chemical munitions and 6,646 are Chemical Agent Identification Sets (CAIS) or components of the sets. From 1928 to 1969, approximately 110,000 CAIS were produced and distributed to train military and civilians in the safe handling, identifications, and decontamination of chemical warfare agents. The sets consist of small amounts of chemical warfare agents (sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, and lewisite), former chemical warfare agents now classified as industrial chemicals, and chemical warfare agent simulants stored in ampules, vials, and bottles that are packed into metal or wooden containers. Because the CAIS are training items for defense against a chemical attack, the CWC does not require their disposal. However, the congressional order requires the Army to dispose of all recovered CAIS. In the 1980s approximately 21,000 CAIS were destroyed, but the missing CAIS are of particular concern because several sets have been discovered outside military sites by private citizens, such as the discovery near the Mississippi State Fairgrounds.

Former production facilities. The CWC requires the declaration and destruction of all former chemical weapons production facilities constructed or used after January 1, 1946. The United States possesses 13 that were used for chemical weapons prior to 1968. One facility is located in each of the following states: Alabama, California, Indiana, Maryland, and North Carolina. Four facilities are in both Arkansas and Colorado. The CWC does allow the conversion of these facilities to non-prohibited purposes if a country can prove a compelling reason for such action.

Miscellaneous chemical warfare materials. The miscellaneous chemical warfare material includes: 1) Items designed specifically for conducting chemical warfare such as unfilled munitions, empty rocket warheads, fuses and bursters designed for chemical munitions, and simulant-filled munitions; 2) Chemical samples transferred from suspect containers into safer storage devices; 3) Ton containers in which chemical warfare agents were previously stored or shipped; and 4) Research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) chemical warfare material, which are items used for the development of offensive and defensive chemical warfare capabilities. The CWC requires disposal of the first two groups of miscellaneous material. Some of this miscellaneous material contains explosives that will require extraction prior to disposal. The ton containers are not controlled by the CWC because they are used extensively to store commercial chemicals, not only chemical warfare agents. Currently the Army lists no items in the RDT&E group, but it may reclassify some chemical sample material as RDT&E-the CWC allows participatory nations to maintain 1 metric ton of banned chemical warfare agents for research, medical, pharmaceutical, and protective purposes.

Non-stockpile Disposal Efforts

The Army's Non-stockpile Chemical Material Program (NSCMP) was established in 1992 to locate and dispose of non-stockpile chemical material. To prevent further accidental discoveries of buried material, the Army is attempting to locate all potential chemical material burial sites. This effort has involved extensive review of historical documents, visits to potential sites, and interviews with military and civilian personnel who may have knowledge of past burial activities. When a potential burial site is identified, often an archaeological-type excavation by hand must be used to avoid possible accidental release of chemical agent or detonation of a munition's explosives. Metal detectors can also be used to detect buried chemical weapons containers and munitions. Similar to the problems of using metal detectors to locate land mines, however, almost any site that has ever been used by humans for any purpose will contain some metal waste, so these instruments are of limited use in confirming the presence of chemical munitions. When a burial site is confirmed, the NSCMP must decide whether excavation and destruction pose less risk to health and environmental safety than leaving the chemical material in the ground.

Descriptions of the non-stockpile burial sites demonstrate how future environmental problems were not considered when chemical warfare material was disposed in past decades. The Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base site in North Carolina is illustrative: there, eight to ten 55-gallon drums of mustard agent were reportedly buried from 1944 to 1945. According to an eyewitness, "the drums were placed in a hole and perforated with machine gun fire to drain the drums." Today's Army is now force to deal with the consequences of such actions.

Dealing with the four categories of non-stockpile material other than buried chemical material is projected to require only 5% of the total non-stockpile budget. Also, compared to buried chemical weapons, the estimates for the time required for their disposal - binary weapons (10 years), miscellaneous (5 years), former production facilities (10 years), and recovered chemical weapons (10 years) - are much shorter and would meet the requirements of the CWC.

The Army is shipping 201,728 M687 binary weapons stored at Umatilla, Oregon to Hawthorne Army Depot (HWAD), which is about 140 miles southeast of Carson City, Nevada, for destruction and more than 142,000 of the weapons have already been eliminated. At HWAD the canister containing OPA is removed and the OPA drained and shipped off-site for disposal. Following disassembly, the metal projectile body and aluminum explosive casing are sold for commercial use and the explosive is recovered for reuse. The second binary component, DF, is stored in separate canisters at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas, where it will be destroyed at commercial disposal facilities. Also at Pine Bluff, the Army has nearly completed destruction of all remaining components of the prototype bigeye bombs.

Although considered non-stockpile material, NSCMP is only responsible for former chemical weapons production facilities in Arkansas, Indiana, and Maryland. The disposal of facilities at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado is being coordinated by a separate Army program manager while the Tennessee Valley Authority is responsible for the site in Alabama. Final decisions for the California and North Carolina facilities have yet to be made. The California site is currently being used as a movie sound stage and the United States is seeking to make this conversion of the facility to a "peaceful purpose" final, as can be allowed under the CWC. Only metal components of binary weapons were made at the California facility and no banned chemical agents were shipped to the facility or loaded into munitions. The NSCMP has begun efforts to destroy a former VX production facility in Newport, Indiana and the a pilot plant at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland began in 1998. Production at the VX facility ended in 1968 when the United States halted production of unitary chemical weapons. Demolition of the Newport facility is expected to take around eight year and cost some $75 million.

Progress is also being made in the destruction of miscellaneous chemical warfare material. More than 8,000 unfilled chemical weapons projectile bodies have been destroyed at Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah. Some 7,000 ton containers that were previously used to store bulk amounts of chemical agents are being cleaned and recycled. The containers, which are made of high grade steel, are checked to make sure they are not contaminated and then cut it two and cleaned of scales and oxides before shipment to Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, where the halves are smelted into steel ingots. Over 1,600 ton containers have already been recycled. Because most of the containers predate World War II and, thus, all atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, their steel is radiologically extremely pure and very valuable for construction of such things as Geiger counters.

The disposal of buried, recovered, and miscellaneous chemical warfare material that contain unitary chemical agents is much more challenging and can only be destroyed by special facilities. Recognizing the problems that would be associated with transporting chemical warfare agents, the Army plans to analyze and destroy this material on-site whenever possible. At a few sites with large amounts of material the Army plans to construct temporary disposal facilities that will be demolished after completing their missions. At most of the non-stockpile sites where there is less material the Army is developing mobile units capable of traveling to each site. The mobile tools currently being developed by the Army are the Mobile Munitions Assessment System (MMAS), Munition Management Devices (MMDs), and the Rapid Response System (RRS).

The MMAS is a truck and trailer combination designed to assess recovered chemical weapons rapidly and to communicate that assessment to appropriate personnel. The MMAS contains three X-ray devices for analyzing the condition of any explosive present in a munition and a portable isotopic neutron spectroscopic system to establish the identity of any chemical agent present in recovered material. Communication devices, (satellite up-links, cellular phones, and short-wave radios) and imaging systems allow the MMAS crew to stay in contact with experts and decision makers from remote locations. Additionally, weather monitoring devices allow climatic conditions that could affect disposal activities to be monitored - an extremely important capability for determining the safest location at a site if a leaking munition is located. A functional MMAS has been used to assess munitions at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The MMD and RRS disposal systems utilize neutralization with strong bases and bleaches to destroy any chemical warfare agents discovered. The resulting solutions would then be sent to a commercial hazardous waste facility for final disposal. The first MMD system, MMD-1, is designed for on-site treatment of nonexplosive munitions and small containers recovered-at small burial sites or former test ranges. Other facilities, MMD-2 and MMD-3, are being developed for the treatment of explosively configured chemical munitions and large bulk containers. The RRS is designed to access, neutralize, and containerize treated waste from recovered CAIS. The chemical warfare agents present first will be neutralized in the RRS, then repackaged for shipment to commercial waste disposal facilities. Industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agent simulants also will be repackaged and transported to commercial waste facilities.

Before any of the Army's mobile devices for destroying non-stockpile material can be used, the Army must demonstrate that they meet all state and federal laws and regulations. The NSCMP hoped to receive a permit for its RRS system in Utah by the end of 1998. Recently, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories demonstrated that the Army's mobile destruction facilities could completely and safely destroy the chemical warfare agent, phosgene. Besides inspecting potential non-stockpile sites and developing technologies for destroying chemical material when discovered, the NSCMP is conducting public outreach programs and maintaining information repositories at non-stockpile sites to educate local citizens and officials of the risks at these sites and how to safely treat newly discovered material before the Army can respond.

Some non-stockpile sites coincide with stockpile storage sites, therefore, the argument that stockpile disposal facilities at these sites should also be used to destroy the non-stockpile material could be made. However, to reduce public fear that permanent chemical waste disposal facilities would be located in their vicinities, Congress mandated that the stockpile facilities can only be used to destroy stockpile material and must be demolished after they destroy the stockpile material at a site. Currently, the Army is making no effort have this law altered so these facilities could also be used for non-stockpile material. It is worth noting, that the variety and poor condition of much of the non-stockpile material likely mean that stockpile facilities could not be used to destroy all non-stockpile material even if it were allowed by law.


The Army originally thought that incineration was the best option for destroying the country's stockpile of chemical warfare material. However, the Army has not been able to persuade everyone to agree with this conclusion. Various citizen and environmental groups continue to file lawsuits to stop the operation of the two existing incineration facilities and to halt construction of any additional facilities. Debates about the best disposal technology should not ignore the fact that, while delays in disposal occur as alternate technologies are examined, the stockpile will continue to deteriorate and that the likelihood of more chemical spills and accidents will also increase.

With only two operational disposal facilities at stockpile storage sites and with state construction permits not yet issued at the other seven sites, it is not certain that the United States will be able to meet the 2007 destruction deadline for this material required by the CWC. The CWC does allow member states to request five-year extensions to this requirement, a clause largely believed to be included for Russia where financial problems and other factors have almost halted that country's chemical warfare material disposal program. Russia possesses the world's largest stockpile of chemical warfare material, including some 40,000 tons of chemical agents. Although it does not have the financial problems of Russia, the United States may also find itself needing to request this extension.

The future of the Army's non-stockpile program is perhaps even less certain than that of the stockpile program. Only around $280 million of its expected $15.1 billion budget have been spent and its expected completion date is still decades away. The General Accounting Office has already stated that uncertainties about buried chemical weapons, unproven destruction technologies, and expected difficulties in obtaining the needed environmental permits and approvals will likely delay the completion and increase the cost of the non-stockpile program. But there are reasons for optimism. That the Army is focusing on mobile disposal systems that utilize neutralization for destroying non-stockpile chemical agents is a promising development. Mobile facilities eliminate public concerns about chemical warfare agents being transported on the nation's roads and highways. In addition, while the pros and cons of using incineration to destroy chemical warfare material can be debated, the consequences of public objections to the use of this technology in stockpile disposal program suggest that the Army is wise to be developing disposal options based on other technologies.

The need for the stockpile and non-stockpile disposal programs reveals how past decisions have resulted in unexpected consequences. The decision to stockpile large amounts of chemical weapons was seen as necessary to counter Soviet chemical warfare capabilities during the Cold War, but little thought was given to the fact that this material might have to be destroyed one day. The Army will ultimately end up spending more money destroying chemical weapons than it did constructing them. In addition, past decisions to bury deteriorating and unwanted chemical weapons that were considered to be final disposal solutions at the time have not turned out to be final solutions after all. The challenges that now face the non-stockpile disposal program are consequences the country ought to bear in mind as it disposes of dangerous materials today, whether they are chemical warfare material, nuclear, or industrial waste.


General Accounting Office. Chemical Weapons and Material: Key Factors Affecting Costs and Schedule, GAO/NSIAD-97-18, February 1997.

National Research Council. Recommendations for the Disposal of Chemical Agents and Munitions, National Academy Press: Washington, D.C., 1994.

National Research Council. Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technologies, National Academy Press: Washington, D.C., 1996.

Stock, T. and Lohs, K., eds. The Challenges of Old Chemical Munitions and Toxic Armament Wastes, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Trapp, Ralf. The Detoxification and Natural Degradation of Chemical Warfare Agents. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Milton E. Blackwood, Jr. is a postdoctoral associate in the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University. He has written extensively on chemistry. Some of the material in this article was drawn from a paper first published in Arms Control Today.

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