Category Archives: Pacific region

In the Depths of the Oceans, Human Activities Are Beginning to Take Their Toll

Edited Landsat 8 image of one of the deep blue holes in the Caribbean Sea. Once seen as too remote to harm, the deep sea is facing new pressures from mining, pollution, overfishing and more. (Photo: Stuart Rankin / Flickr)

Erik Vance| Truthout | June 13, 2017

Imagine sinking into the deepest parts of the Central Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Mexico and Hawaii. Watch as the water turns from clear to blue to dark blue to black. And then continue on for another 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) to the seafloor — roughly the distance from the peak of California’s Mount Whitney to the bottom of nearby Death Valley.

“As soon as you start to descend, all of the wave action and bouncing goes away and it’s like you’re just floating and then you sink really slowly and watch the light fade out through the windows and then you really are in another world,” says Erik Cordes, a researcher at Temple University and frequent visitor to the deep ocean.

Finally, you come to a stop 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) below the last bits of light from the surface. The water here is strangely viscous yet remarkably transparent, and the light from your flashlight extends for hundreds of yards. You are in the heart of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a region of the ocean seafloor roughly the size of the United States, populated by colorless invertebrates adapted in astounding ways to the sparse, crushing conditions found here.

And all around you — as far as the eye can’t see — are small, spherical rocks. Varying from microscopic to the size of a volleyball, they look like something stolen from the set of “Gremlins” or maybe “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

And they’re worth millions. Because inside these mysterious little eggs are untouched stores of copper, titanium, cobalt and especially manganese — crucial for making anything from the steel in your car’s frame to the circuitry that tells you how much gas is left in it. Some metals exist in larger quantities here than on all the continents of the world — and you had better believe they have caught the eye of mining companies.

The deep ocean, which in some places extends farther below Earth’s surface than Mt. Everest stands above, is facing threats from humans despite its remoteness.

It’s hard to draw a line exactly where the deep ocean starts. Starting at about 650 feet (200 meters), there’s not enough light to support photosynthesis, and at around 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) there’s no light at all. From there to the deepest spot, at the bottom of the 36,000-foot-deep (11,000-meter-deep) Mariana Trench between Japan and Papua New Guinea (deep enough to hold Mount Everest with New Hampshire’s Mount Washington stuck on top of it) is loosely defined as the “deep sea.”

However it’s defined, the deep sea today is a place of change. Human activities already are affecting it — and are poised, as these mineral stores suggest — to radically affect it even more in the decades to come. Attention we pay and decisions we make now could make all the difference in its fate.

Mining the Depths

The mineral riches of this deep ocean are vast and nearly untouched for now. But that’s changing as new technologies are allowing humans to access ever-deeper parts of the seafloor.

Current mining strategies break down along two rough categories. First is nodule mining — gathering up those bizarre seafloor billiard balls that have slowly collected minerals over the centuries as they trickled down like rain from above or seeped up from below and congregated around some central particle like rock candy around a string. There is no industry standard for sweeping up nodules so far below the surface — about 4,000 to 6,000 meters (13,000 to 20,000 feet) — though companies have proposed ideas as varied as deepwater vacuum cleaners and massive trawlers dragging across the seafloor. One 1985 study estimated 550 billion metric tons (610 billion tons) of nodules in the sea.

The second form of mining is targeted around sulfur vents and other types of seeps. These operations would be in shallower water — 4,000 to 12,000 feet (1,200 to 3,700 meters) — and look more like traditional mining operations scraping sulfur, phosphorus or precious metals from the sides of underwater ridges.

So far, all of these projects are theoretical. Most of the permits currently granted for deep-sea mining are for nodules, but the first ones to actually break ground are likely to be around ocean vents. Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company working off the coast of Papua New Guinea, has begun implementing a project to mine gold and copper at a ridge about 5,000 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface and in April began receiving equipment.

Company executives have pointed out that they have passed environmental impact reviews and that their project is friendlier to the Earth than other mining operations because the ore is so rich they can get more of it by disturbing less of the soil. But scientists point out that much remains unknown about what deep-water strip mining will do to the environment. In the case of ocean vents, there are some animals that may live only in that spot, and a single mine could wipe out entire species. In addition, both styles of mining would kick up potentially toxic plumes of ultra-fine sand that could travel hundreds of miles through a part of the ocean that has remained undisturbed for thousands of years.

“They’re going into new environments with a lot of environmental impacts,” says Lisa Levin, an expert in the deep sea at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “We are going to lose stuff before we ever discover it.”

Climate Change and the Deep Ocean

Because life in the deep ocean is more sensitive to change than in the shallows, the smallest shift in pH, oxygen or temperature can have huge effects. Thus, one of the most serious concerns about the deep ocean is climate change.

According to Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, a quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean. Some of it gets absorbed into the water itself or turns to particulate, thus lowering the pH and oxygen levels, and some is buried and turned to stone, where it effectively neutralized and stored for millions of years.

A quarter to a third of the CO2 humans have released has gone to the deep ocean.Ironically, the deep ocean is one of the greatest mitigators of climate change as well, since it absorbs a massive portion of the Earth’s heat and CO2. In fact, one recent study showed that the ocean is absorbing phenomenally more heat now than ever before — about the same amount between 1997 and 2015 as it had in the previous 132 years. As a result, scientists are already seeing incremental temperature rise in the deep sea. Though less than at the surface, changes down there tend to represent more permanent ocean shifts.

Trickle Down Effects

Then there is chemical pollution. While mining the deep sea might be new, polluting it is not. Recent studies have found toxic terrestrial chemicals like PCBs and PBDEs in the tissues of animals living in the deepest places on Earth. In fact, where once scientists assumed the deep ocean was rather isolated from the surface, new studies have shown that the two are closely connected and that material can pass quickly into the depths.

The most spectacular example of this was the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico. It was assumed at the time that much of the millions of barrels of oil released by the faulty offshore drilling rig would float; they did not. It was assumed that the dispersant would neutralize the oil; in fact it was more toxic to deep sea corals than the oil itself.

“The probability of an accident goes up with depth,” and thus the potential for harming ocean life, Cordes says of deep-sea operations. “The deeper you go, the more stable the environment is; the more stable it is, the less those organisms can deal with changes.”

Cordes studies all sorts of pollution effects beyond the reach of sunlight. He and colleagues published pioneering research looking at the first evidence of acidification in the deep ocean in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Norway.

He says it’s easy to think of the deep sea as some kind of wasteland, while in fact it’s brimming with life.

“People don’t realize that there are massive coral reefs all over the Gulf of Mexico, there’s corals right off shore in California, there’s corals up in New England,” he says.

To overload this system or tinker with it at all is to play with fire.

“If we put something in the deep ocean, we pretty much can’t clean it up,” Thurber says.

And we can’t depend on the animals down there to adapt and clean up after us as they often do at the surface. Cordes says microbes at the surface can double their numbers in 12 hours; in the deep ocean it takes half a year. Because the generation time is so much slower, Thurber says, it takes decades for carbon-munching deep water microbes to battle, say, higher methane levels than the days or weeks it would take critters at the surface. Thus, our decisions around greenhouse gas emissions at the surface have now affected every ecosystem on Earth.

Permanent Decline

And it’s not just the microbes that grow slowly — fish in the deep ocean also take their time. As a result, fishing is another threat to the deep ocean. With most normal, surface fishing practices, it’s possible to manage a population such that what you take out is the same as what the population can replenish. But because fish found far from the surface grow slowly, some scientists have gone so far as to say that deep sea fishing is more analogous to mining than to fishing.

The classic case of this is the common slimehead. The slimehead is a delicious, bulky, dark red fish found from 180 to 1,500 meters (590 to 4,920 feet) below the surface in many of the world’s oceans. In the late 1970s, concerned that cod was on a permanent decline, seafood marketers in New Zealand began pushing slimehead under the more palatable name, orange roughy, because it turns orange after death.

Why this seemed like a good idea is a mystery. Slimehead spawn only 4 percent of the number of eggs as cod and take 20 to 30 years to reach maturity (rather than about two for cod). Within a couple decades the Australian government started reducing allowable harvest and then closing fisheries altogether as they tried to figure out catch limits that wouldn’t decimate the creature.

Some scientists now say there is no such number. One team estimated The New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries in 2009 estimated that a single 40-square-mile (100-square-kilometer) deep ocean fishery in the Pacific can only sustainably produce about 200 kilograms (400 pounds) of product per year. That’s about 57 adult slimehead. But that particular fishery produces 8,000 metric tons (9,000 tons) of slimehead per year. A similar story is playing out in other slimehead fisheries across the world, as well as other deepwater creatures like grenadiers, sharks and toothfish (otherwise known as Chilean seabass).

Direct Connection

In many ways, the deep sea truly is a new world waiting to be explored. But in our rush to exploit that new world, unless we think carefully about the impacts, we may find ourselves harming it before we even understand it — with implications for ourselves.

“[The deep oceans] are supporting these fish that we are depending on for food, they’re helping to recycle nutrients that come back to shallow waters, fuel the productivity of the ocean, produce half of the oxygen we breathe,” says Cordes. “We are directly connected to them.”

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Pacific Spotlights Sea Bed Mining at UN Ocean Conference

PIANGO | SCOOP | 9 June 2017

Activists and representatives from prominent Pacific Island organisations, led by the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), are taking part in a high-profile side event at the United Nations (UN) Oceans Conference at UN Headquarters in New York today. PIANGO is the Pacific Organising Partner for the UN NGO Major Group at the Oceans Conference.

The panel discussion, aptly themed “Voices from the Blue Frontier,” focused on a more sustainable approach to the “Blue Economy” and shared community experiences from the world’s first experimental deep sea mining project “Solwara One” in Papua New Guinea (PNG), highlighting environmental threats and rights violations of indigenous resource owners and local communities through deep sea mining.

The panel is featuring prominent speakers such as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), Francois Martel; Executive Director of PIANGO, Emele Duituturaga; Human Rights Attorney, Julian Aguon; Sarah Thomas nededog, PNG Catholic Cardinal John Ribat and Fair Oceans Expert, Kai Kaschinski.

The side event is designed to provide a platform for engagement and knowledge sharing on the underlying science of seabed mining and to highlight the need for strong governance measures to ensure that appropriate social and environmental safeguards are in place to protect against projected adverse effects of seabed mining in the Pacific Ocean.

“The United Nations Oceans Conference provides a further opportunity for multi-stakeholder participation and partnership building between governments, the private sector and civil society. This event is a demonstration of this inclusive approach and in particular, amplifies the voices of Pacific people, who have the greatest stake in the outcomes of the Oceans Conference,” Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of PIANGO explained.

“As Small Island Developing States, Pacific Island countries are particularly affected by these ocean developments. Our people rely largely on the ocean and marine resources for their livelihoods, while environmental pollution of oceans and climate change increasingly threaten existing economies.

“For many years, organisations of small-scale fishermen around the world have been fighting against ocean grabbing and the privatisation of fisheries resources. Deep sea mining is an example of such growth-oriented strategies and the unsustainable utilisation of marine resources. It disregards the rights of local communities and their livelihoods, and satisfies the resource needs of industrialised countries and emerging economies,” Ms Duituturaga said.

“Deep sea mining is not a strategy for sustainable development of Pacific Island countries. Deep sea mining and the negative impacts of climate change are based on the same failed model of development. Both threaten the health of the marine environment that is of such vital importance for Pacific Small Island Developing States. We have repeatedly reiterated that we need to rethink prevailing development models and approaches and reshape the Pacific we want.”

The Ocean Conference will result in a Call for Action that has been agreed to by countries, and which will be formally adopted at the conclusion of the Conference. Additional outcomes include the results of seven partnership dialogues that will focus on solutions, and the voluntary commitments to action.

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This World Oceans Day, protect oceans from mining

Payal Sampat | Earthworks | June 8, 2017

This week, delegates from around the world are meeting at the United Nations for the first UN Oceans Conference, to discuss the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: the conservation of oceans, seas and marine resources.

A girl in Papua New Guinea opposed to ocean mine waste dumping. Credit: Martin Wurt

We are subjecting our oceans to a barrage of assaults, many of which we are all familiar with – rising temperatures, overfishing, acidification. Less well-known are the dual threats to oceans from mining: the ongoing pollution of marine ecosystems by mine waste and the irreversible harm to deep-sea ecosystems that would result from proposed deep-seabed mining.

Mining pollution

Each year, mining companies dump more than 180 million tonnes of hazardous mine waste into oceans, rivers, and lakes worldwide. This is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem – mining corporations are using the cheapest solution to disposing of the massive amounts of waste generated at their mining operations. Earthworks has documented some of the egregious examples of marine mine waste disposal in a report, Troubled Waters. Mine waste dumping in oceans has led to reduced populations of fish and bottom-dwelling organisms in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In Norway, mine tailings are being dumped into designated national salmon fjords, which support huge fishing and tourism industries.

Deep-sea mining

Lurking around the corner is another serious threat to oceans from mining. Deep-sea mining is a high-risk, experimental industrial activity being proposed in one of the most fragile, unexplored areas of our planet. Companies from a number of countries – including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, China — are seeking to mine metals from cobalt crusts, manganese nodules, and hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. As yet, there are no viable deep-sea mining operations – but many companies and governments are actively lobbying for that to change.

A United Nations-established body, the International Seabed Authority, is charged with regulating and granting exploration permits for deep seabed mining in waters outside national jurisdictions. It is currently in the process of developing regulations for deep-sea mining – but to date, these have been far from protective, and quite insubstantial.

Leading up to the UN Oceans Conference, ocean advocates from across the globe have joined to oppose deep-seabed mining given the threat it poses to vulnerable ocean ecosystems and species. A statement from Seas At Risk supported by 34 international organizations, including Earthworks, calls on the International Seabed Authority to halt the granting of contracts for deep-sea mining and to direct its energies to increased resource efficiency and sustainable consumption.

It’s also time to protect our oceans by permanently banning the egregious and outdated practice of dumping mine waste into oceans. There are far more responsible ways to dispose of mine waste. Countries — including Norway, Turkey, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia — must reject any new proposals that would dump mine waste into marine waters. And companies must publicly commit to taking this unsafe practice off the table once and for all.

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Seabed mining threatens ‘last frontier’

PACNEWS/Pasifik |  June 8, 2017

THE Solwara Em Laif Campaign has released a documentary as part of a series focusing on experimental seabed mining, an imminent venture in the Pacific.

This documentary presents the situation in Papua New Guinea.

“Despite the experimental nature and a dearth of knowledge about hydrothermal vents and deep sea ecosystems, Nautilus Minerals Inc. is already prospecting PNG’s Bismarck Sea with an aim to begin mining as early as 2019,” said a Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) spokesman.

“This film highlights a general failure by authorities to incorporate sufficient environmental protections, as well as the norm of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Sea.

“These are the voices of the guardians protecting the Last Frontier.”

This documentary will also be featured to world leaders at the UN Ocean Conference currently under way in New York, at the Blue Frontier side-event.

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Pacific Ocean: ‘We cannot let history repeat itself – we’re not guinea pigs’

The kava ceremony at the opening of the UN World Ocean Conference in New York this week.

Asia Pacific Report | June 8, 2017

A Pacific World Oceans Day message from Youngsolwara Pacific and MISA4thePacific

As regional leaders gather in New York for the week-long United Nations oceans conference, we wish to recognise the Pacific’s storied history, as stewards of the world’s largest ocean. We acknowledge the test of time that this region has withstood, and commemorate those who have endure and withstood nuclear testing, a period in history with ramifications that are still felt by our oceans, lands, and peoples.

We remember this period as being a time when our oceans and people were utilised as guinea pigs by foreign powers. We acknowledge the issues both past and present that the Pacific faces, and we firmly refute the narrative that “we are victims’”.

We stand tall as the next generation of Pacific Islanders who shall also thrive on our sea of islands. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us to make a stand.

On this note we call upon our Pacific and global leaders to take a stand against genocide. We, the Pacific, will not allow a repetition of colonialism.

Our peoples have suffered greatly from the destructive programmes of militarised colonial powers during the 20th century, continuing into the 21st. The legacy of nuclear testing throughout Oceania, in particular the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, and elsewhere, has never been effectively remedied or addressed.

The consequences of detonating hundreds of nuclear bombs of a much greater destructive power than Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs are still being felt today by indigenous islanders – manifesting in, among other impacts, debilitating health and intergenerational maladies.

Runit Dome leaking
This legacy continues to threaten not just Pacific islanders and the Pacific Ocean, but the health and wellbeing of all the planet’s oceans and the people who depend upon them. Radioactive materials currently contained in Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands are leaking into the surrounding ocean and groundwater.

The Runit Dome was a haphazard attempt by the US military to contain 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste in an unlined crater. It was never replaced by a safe, permanent structure and instead is currently cracking and polluting the local surroundings.

Henry Kissinger in response to nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, is quoted as stating: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?” In response, we say: We are still here, and we are not going anywhere.

Cactus dome on Runit Island is testament to a history of experimentation, and the violation of our fundamental human rights. Leakage from the dome has resulted in the runoff of radioactive materials which poses serious concerns to the health of our oceans and the people who rely on them.

Parallels can be made with the ongoing contamination of our oceans as a result of terrestrial mining. Contaminants and runoff from existing mines remain a threat to the viability of our marine ecosystems. The oceans have still not recovered from the destructive acts of world wars, nuclear testing, and continued military maneuvers.

Intensified efforts must be made to demilitarise the oceans and to clean-up existing messes. As we the Pacific clamour for international action to halt carbon emissions, and desist from environmentally degrading activities, let us therefore be the change that we wish to see in the world.

Today, there are also parallels to be seen with the advent of extractive industries such as experimental seabed mining. Seabed mining is an issue that governments in the Pacific are still toying with.

No indigenous voices
Yet, this has not been tested anywhere else in the world. The discussion on seabed mining has proceeded narrowly for the past 30 years. There has not been inclusion of indigenous voices or much thought as to the inordinate risks in operating an untested extractive industry, in a fragile and almost completely unknown deep sea environment.

A recent joint study by 14 international universities and organisations discovered that hydrothermal vents and methane seeps on the ocean floor play a crucial role in regulating global climate – and that releasing or destroying them “would be a doomsday climatic event.”

In addition to likely and potentially irreversible environmental impacts, seabed mining is a long-term, experimental venture in which any potential profits for States must be offset by the short-term impacts, which could include destruction of local fisheries and resultant impacts on human health and livelihoods. There also remains the issue that on our ocean beds, plutonium from past nuclear tests has settled. Seabed mining can potentially act as a catalyst for the further dispersion of these contaminants.

It is, in short, a gamble, especially when compared to already profitable industries with a proven track record of sustainability such as ecotourism. Rather than shoulder inordinate risk in the hopes of a hypothetical, distant, and comparatively small cut of revenue, our Pacific governments should allow time for significantly more scientific study, and consider alternative partnerships with industries which, by their very nature, are inherently more sustainable.

We are once again faced with the same situation where foreign influences seek to utilise the Pacific for their own means. Our ocean cannot yet again be used as an experimental test bed for an activity whose full environmental ramifications are still not fully known.

We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in New Ireland and the Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea, and call for a ban on experimental seabed mining in our waters. We call upon the peoples of the Pacific. We cannot allow such a repetition of experimentation that will again affect our oceans and our people.

Weathered test of time
We the Pacific have weathered the test of time. Over the millennia, our people have not simply survived, but thrived through the bounty of our oceans. With the advent of human induced climate change, the ocean that has nurtured us for millennia, has now become a threat to the existence of our islands. We call upon the leaders and peoples of the Pacific to further our efforts in making our voices heard. The United States has pulled out of the Paris accord, but we the people of “Wansolwara” (one salt water) remain committed.

Let us embrace the spirit of the Marshallese saying “Lappout Iene” which means to utilise or employ all the knowledge, skills and resources available to solve a problem. With this, we say that we the people of Wansolwara are in this together. When nuclear testing was occurring, the people of Wansolwara did not remain passive.

We call on our leaders to honour that proud legacy, and to Lappout Iene, make a stand and recognise and address the fact that our land, ocean and people have historically been used as guinea pigs to fuel the greed, defence needs, and convenience of foreign entities.

The advent of deep seabed mining is simply another evolution in this history of greed-fuelled economic exploitation, and a callous disregard for the environmental and human life. We the people of Wansolwara stand firmly opposed to militarism, environmental degradation, and the violation of our human rights. We are Oceania, we are Wansolwara, and we are the sea of islands.

We will not allow this history to repeat itself!

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The role of transnational corporations and extractive industries in seabed mining, and the impacts on oceans health and food security

The Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will launch its “Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2017″ during this years High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July in New York. As an advance excerpt, the Group has published the Chapter on SDG 14 by Maureen Penjueli (Pacific Network on Globalization) on occasion of the Ocean Conference (June 5-9, 2017 at UNHQ, New York).

Introduction

Despite the importance of a healthy Pacific Ocean, evidence is mounting that this unique ecosystem is in real danger from anthropogenic threats such as overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution and probably the most severe threat of all, climate change and resulting sea level rise. The rush to mine the deep seas is representing the newest frontier of extractive industry and perhaps the biggest threat to the world’s oceans in the 21st century. There is a significant concern that seabed mining has the potential to cause major environmental destruction to the entire Pacific Ocean and would seriously undermine the implementation of SDG 14, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources. The fact that the International Seabed Authority does not have an agreed policy on the sustainable management of seabed minerals yet, points to the significant global gap in oceans governance.

Download the Report [pdf]

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Ban experimental seabed mining: Church

Luke Kama | The National aka The Loggers Times | June 1, 2017

THE Catholic church is calling on the Government to ban deep sea mining in the country.

President of the Federation of the Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania Cardinal Sir John Ribat and general secretary Father Victor Roche said such technology should not be tested in PNG waters.

The 17 Catholic Bishops from PNG and one administrator from the Solomon Islands who attended their annual general meeting recently discussed the proposed seabed mining called Solwara One and Solwara Two close to the shores of PNG.

“We were informed that the machines belonging to the company Nautilus have arrived already in Port Moresby and are ready to go ahead with the testings of technology for seabed mining in the waters of PNG,” Sir John said.

“This will be the first of its kind for such technology to be tested in PNG and if successful, the actual seabed mining will be done in many parts of Pacific with the agreement of the different island countries and that is a great concern.”

He said responsible use of the environment and resources was a duty and task, for everyone.

And the Catholic bishops support the coastal people and the groups who raised their voice to question the proposed seabed mining.

“What kind of international agreement permits foreign companies to engage in practices and processes which in their own country are illegal?

“The sea is a treasure for all and should never become a playground of exploitation. Seabed mining will cause direct physical destruction of the unique ecosystems and in terms of benefits, we have many mining operating on the land and the landowners, the people are still disadvantaged.

“Now we are trying to dig from the sea and what guarantee of satisfaction and benefits will the people and the country reap to satisfy?

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