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    The annual wet season in the tropics produces excess accumulation of water on mine sites, which may become contaminated through contact with mine waste rock and mineral processing. Waste water may be discharged offsite and reach downstream aquatic ecosystems, including wetlands. In many cases constituents are diluted or ameliorated through adsorption, chelation and co-precipitation processes. Tropical climatic conditions and local mineralogy causes high incidence of acidic runoff, which may have deleterious effects on biota, making it difficult to restore the aquatic ecosystem. Wetlands are most suited to treating recessional flows associated with the cessation of the wet season, in contrast to the high dilution achieved during discharge into flood episodes. The ability of the aquatic plants, soils and sediments of wetlands to retain contaminants enables them to prevent dispersion of pollutants into the environment. Moreover, the fringe zones of large natural wetland areas can be used to protect the main area of the wetland itself.

    The composition and kind of waste water (mildly alkaline, near-neutral and acid) will determine the type of wetland system to be employed. Wetlands that may be used are: existing wetlands, enhanced natural wetlands or constructed wetlands incorporating specific water treatment zones for treatment of acid mine drainage. Other factors of prime importance when using wetland systems in the tropics are mosquito control and minimisation of faunal access to contaminated flora and water in the wetlands.

    Wetlands can therefore be considered as a means of cleaning up contaminated waste waters from tropical mine sites, enabling water releases; their cost effectiveness and 'green appeal' ensures they will become employed to this end at many mine sites in the future. An understanding of the physico-chemical processes involved is seen to be the key step in effectively utilising wetlands to treat mine waste water.

    AMD = Acid Mine Drainage

    pH = -log[H+], where [H+] is the concentration of hydrogen ion in moles/L. A low pH(<7) an acidic solution, while a high pH (>7) indicates an alkaline solution.

    2.1 Climate and Location

    Northern Australia lies within the tropics, and as such, experiences a wet-dry seasonal climate (figure 1) (1). In addition, the 'Top End' (defined as the area of Australia north of 15°S) has an annual high temperature distribution (generally between 29 and 34°C in the shade, with temperatures up 77°C being measured in the sun). The monsoonal trough produces annual deluges of rain in the 'wet season', with the highest number of rain days occurring between November and April(2), reaching a maximum average of 21 days in January in Darwin (figures 2 and 3) whilst the minimum falls to an average of near zero for June-August. This region, therefore, has a high rainfall intensity during the wet season. Humidity in the Top End is also high throughout the year with wet-dry variations ranging between 70 and 100% relative humidity. Tropical cyclones are fairly rare events, particularly inland where the majority of the Northern Territory's mines are situated. However, tropical rain depressions are common events both inland and at the coast, and can produce substantial amounts of rainfall.  

     2.2 Modern Mining and Mineral Processing

    Large scale open pit mines are a common modern mining method. Such a practice produces large volumes of waste rock, ore and tailings which require stabilisation on site as well as open voids. An example of the quantities of waste that can be produces is at the Ranger Uranium Mine, which at mining completion will have produced 175 Mt of mill tailings, waste rock and sub-economic grade material remaining for disposal, East et. al. (3). Government guidelines on stabilisation of wastes varies depending on what is mined, and the type of waste. Tailings containment structures for uranium mines, for example, require an engineered structural life of 1000 years. Dam and pond structures for smaller volumes of waste require less stringent measures.

    2.3 Runoff Accumulation and Disposal

    Contact of mine processing materials and waste rock with rainwater leads to incorporation of contaminants into runoff. Downstream aquatic ecosystems may be affected if overflows of waste water occur. This may be difficult to control at tropical minesites unless sufficient storage is provided. Water emanating from a waste dump may be distributed in the following ways (figure 4)(4):

    • Surface runoff , which will run off the waste pile and be lost to overland flow before it has time to infiltrate;
    • Infiltration, the rate. of which depends on a number of features of the waste dump including grain size, waste pile geometry, moisture content, vegetative cover and rate of rainfall;
    • Evaporation, which requires heat, a lower vapour pressure (VP) in the atmosphere than on the surface of the waste body and a continual outflow of water from the interior of the waste body;
    • Evapotranspiration, which occurs as a result of evaporation from the soil and transpiration by the vegetative cover, if present;
    • Percolation, which results when rainfall is sufficiently prolonged that an adequate amount of water can infiltrate, yet the time following cessation of precipitation is not sufficient for evaporative losses; and
    • Recharge, which is a phenomenon also observed in waste dumps, where rainwater infiltrates the dump, and is effectively retained in aquifer for a period of time, before being discharged on the surface or in groundwater (an undesirable effect, since a long residence time allows significant leaching of contaminants to occur).

    All these factors are affected by waste dump design, most particularly by surface slope, texture, vegetative cover, layering, grain size and initial moisture content. The potential for erosion by runoff on slopes is high, but can be reduced by revegetation. Base flow runoff indicates seepage of rainwater through the interstices of the dump, bringing internal surfaces in contact with water, increasing leaching of contaminants. Care must be taken to divert other surface and groundwater flows away from waste dumps (5). A common strategy used to prevent infiltration of water into mine waste dumps is by constructing a low permeability cover (usually compacted clay) over the dump and providing a soil/vegetation cover.

    Runoff water from mines in the Northern Territory is collected in dams, and only be released under licence (issued under the Water Act, 1992); such regulations are designed to minimise detriment to surrounding aquatic ecosystems. At the Ranger Uranium Mine, where the Uranium Mining (Environmental Control) Act (1978) applies, the Act introduces the concept of a restricted release zone (RRZ), which includes all areas in which material is mined, stockpiled, stored or handled, and the catchment draining rainfall from such areas. All waters in the must be kept within the RRZ, unless release is approved (6).

    Generally, dams on mine sites are designed differently according to their purpose. Tailings dams are designed to contain very contaminated material, and so seepage must be minimised. Therefore, the requirements for their construction are very stringent. The performance standards for major dams are set by the Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD) ("Guidelines on Risk Assessment 1994") and by specific state legislation. The accumulation of runoff and flood estimation is dealt with in a publication by the Institute of Engineers, Australia ("Australian rainfall and runoff", 1992). 

    2.4 Acid Mine Drainage

    Water seeping from waste dumps is often contaminated with heavy metals, and sulfate. The common association of the mineral pyrite (FeS2) with gold, leads to a persistent problem at mine sites in the tropics: acid mine drainage (AMD). In addition, climatic conditions in Northern Australia aggravate this problem. AMD is brought about through the oxidation of mineral sulfides, particularly pyrite, by air and water to yield sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. The acid produced enhances dissolution of other sulfide and gangue minerals, and leads to the presence of a whole range of metals in solution, apart from iron, as reviewed by Salomons(7). AMD is usually accompanied by downstream coating of stream sediments by freshly precipitated hydrated ferric oxide, possessing a bright yellow-orange colour. High tropical temperatures exacerbate AMD, doubling the oxidation rate of pyrite with every 10°C increase in temperature at constant relative saturation of water (8). Coupled with the high humidity and rainfall, serious acid drainage can appear in a very short time. Maximum oxidation of pyrite under biotic conditions occurs between the pH ranges 2.4 to 3.6; bacteria amplify the rate of ferrous iron oxidation, and the oxidising bacteria Thiobacillus ferrooxidans thrives in acidic waters. T ferrooxidans has been shown to increase the rate of pyrite oxidation by a factor of more than 10. 

     Some mines, such as Ranger Uranium Mine do not suffer from AMD, but mobilisation of metals through erosion, acidic rains (due to weak organic acids in the atmosphere) early in the wet season, and heavy rain mid wet season ensure they too must cope with contaminated water (3). Table 1 displays some typical values for water samples taken at Ranger, and also typical AMD composition for water samples taken from a tropical gold mine. Natural metal cycles require millions of years to complete, but human intervention has altered this time scale enormously (9). It is necessary to assist natural processes to cope with abundant metal mobilisation in a short time, so as to inhibit movement of toxic metals into the areas surrounding mines which can create secondary contamination in soil, rivers and other natural locations which is then much more difficult to rectify (10).

     Thus, the essential problem is how to deal with excess water accumulated during the wet season. The construction of evaporation ponds is usually impracticable, since ponds that would be capable of removing all excess water would be quite large (typically several hundred ha) and would create an environmental impact in their own right, and hence become very expensive. During periods of heavy rainfall, which may occur in the Top End from December to April (figure 2) direct water release into fast flowing creeks is a viable option, since the dilution ratio that can be achieved is often high enough to reduce the toxicity in the water to background levels, suitable for sustaining healthy aquatic ecosystems, or for some other beneficial use such as stock watering or the provision of drinking water. In the dry season, on-site spray irrigation may be used, as has been done at the Ranger Mine, to dispose of mine waters by evaporation, by infiltration into soil and through evapotranspiration by plants (6). Only water of reasonable quality (i.e. not tailings water) is disposed of by spray irrigation.

    Recessional flows nearer the end of the wet season mean that toxic metals, and other contaminants become more concentrated, and with flows decreasing direct releases are no longer feasible since the required dilution ratios are impossible to achieve. Chemical treatment is possible, but problems like waste dump drainage will proceed for indefinite periods, (possibly hundreds of years) so that such treatment is impracticable, since it is not self sustaining. Wetlands, however, can provide a long-term, inexpensive and sustainable way of dealing with persistent AMD.

    2.5 Aquatic Plants
    Freshwater aquatic plants are those plants adapted to growing in/on permanent or semi-permanent water-bodies and have a definite life form related to this environment (11). Species usually found on the edges of water bodies (eg. reeds and rushes) are included, while peat or bog vegetation and brackish water species are not. In this study, we are not interested in saline wetlands and so these will be excluded. Aquatic plants have a strong tendency to accumulate contaminants (by the process known as phytoremediation). A review by Noller et. al. (11) found that manganese is particularly concentrated in freshwater plants (median concentration in plants situated in contaminated sites was 730 μg/g dry weight). Manganese is frequently high in concentration in recessional flows, and is associated with AMD; so plants prove an effective removal mechanism for manganese. They can also concentrate zinc, arsenic, molybdenum, copper, uranium and lead and their ability to accumulate metals far exceeds that of their terrestrial counterparts. Noller et. al. (11) also concluded that the uptake of soluble ions by freshwater plants was inversely correlated with pH and that a low (i.e. acidic) pH increases accumulation of heavy metals by aquatic plants, probably due to the increase in solubility of trace elements under these conditions. Reducing environments also favour the trapping of trace metals in sediments by cation exchange. The presence of organic matter in water/sediment can complex metals and metalloids directly.

    Submergent plants were found to be the greatest concentrators of heavy metals. All aquatic plants displayed greater accumulation of heavy metals during their period of rapid growth, which occurs during the wet season in the tropics, and thus corresponds with water release episodes. Also, translocation of heavy metals from the shoots to the roots in the dry season coincides with plant dieback, and hence leads to better entrapment in sediments of heavy metals from decomposing root materials. Studies by Eapaea et. al. (12) at Tom's Gully Gold Mine show that after plant senescence in a wetland, the dried sediments retain arsenic and iron oxide residues.

    3.1 General Construction Considerations
    Wetlands (both natural and constructed) have been used for effluent purification for several decades (13). Their attraction lies in their cost effectiveness and self sustainability. Until the last ten years wetlands have generally been used in the treatment of municipal waste water, for reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen and to lower biological oxygen demand (BOD). Municipal wastes being of near-neutral pH and having little metal contamination might be considered easier to treat than mine effluent waters. Nevertheless, wetlands are now becoming popular treatments for industrial waste water. There are two main ways in which mining projects can utilise wetland systems. These are: (i) to minimise the dispersion of waterborne contaminants, and (ii) to utilise the fringe zones of existing wetlands to protect the main area of the wetland.

    The main sink for metals in constructed wetlands is the substratum, although they are also concentrated by colloidal material (14). The soluble metallic contaminants are the most available to biota. Metals are incorporated into sediments by adsorption, cation exchange, precipitation and chelation. Metal distribution between sediments and the water column is variously affected by the latter's acidity, reducing power, salinity (all of which correlate directly with increased dissolution of trace metals) and organic ligands (which decrease metal solubility) (14). The design of wetlands must therefore take into account all of these factors.

    Free metal ions are the main source of toxicity in a wide range of plants and animals (11). Therefore, control of pH is crucial in managing the toxicity of acidic waste waters. Whilst metal uptake by plants is small compared to other removal mechanisms, temporary uptake by plants provides additional capacity for removal. Emergent plants stabilise the substratum by binding it together, and rhizosphere oxygenation aerates the substratum allowing the formation of manganese and iron hydroxides, which scavenge metals and reduce levels of cadmium, copper, nickel, lead and zinc (15). A study of rhizosphere oxygenation by Dunbabin (15) found that metal retention in wetlands was correlated strongly with pH, and only poorly with oxygen concentration and redox potential. However, oxygenation also increases the bioavailability of trace metals to aquatic plants (16). In addition to their other positive features, plants increase microbial and algal activity (which increase metal uptake) (17), provide organic matter on senescence, and act as a filter by slowing water flow, and allowing more of the water column to come into contact with the sediments and deposit particulates and metals (14). Absence of aquatic plants can contribute to erosion of sediments. Floating plants cannot achieve the filtering effect of emergents, and so are not generally used in wetlands for treatment of contaminated waters.

    However, a simple wetland system is often not sufficient for the effective removal of contaminants. This is shown clearly, for example, in an experiment where a constructed wetland was used to treat coal mine drainage in Ohio (18). Limestone and mushroom compost were used as a sediment base, and Typha latifolia was planted, as the only wetland plant species. It was found that electrical conductivity, pH, manganese and sulfate were little reduced by the wetland, while iron was reduced by 50 to 60%. Iron hydroxides were precipitating from the water column, thus turbidity increased significantly, and therefore the wetland was simply acting as a sedimentation pond. The difficulty in treating metal-containing waste waters when compared to municipal and sewerage effluent, presents a significant challenge.

    It is generally inadvisable to use natural wetlands in treating AMD, because they constitute valuable ecosystems, and have rarely been used successfully (13). Instead constructed wetlands can be used, often in conjunction with other treatments. In many studies, peat, hay, gravel and sawdust have been used as substratum materials in a constructed wetland (19) (peat containing 20-30% organic carbon is available in the Northern Territory from near Bynoe Harbour). Many of these prove to be an expensive substratum for use in a whole wetland but in small sections of a wetland may be viable. Instead, natural sediments are frequently used, with addition of hay at the beginning of wetland operation to provide organic matter for metal entrapment, until plants are properly grown. For AMD careful design of functional zones, including channels containing limestone for acid neutralisation, is required before water enters the wetland since plants and sediments provide little buffering capacity for strongly acidic waters. A riffle, or settling pond is often used before water enters the wetland, to remove iron as an oxide through oxidation of ferrous iron emerging from the dump, otherwise extreme turbidity can result in the system. An anaerobic zone, using peat for example, where water makes no contact with air will remove much of the sulfate, as it is reduced to insoluble metal sulfides (copper, lead, zinc, nickel and cadmium). The wetland stage follows the initial treatment zones and its purpose is to 'polish' the waste water. Sulfate reducing bacteria may also play a part, but are generally difficult to foster, since they are intolerant of acid, and require addition of organic matter

    Vigorous plant growth is necessary to ensure success of a wetland. Native plants that are adapted to tropical conditions, should be employed. Moreover, a variety of species is preferred, so that the wetland is less susceptible to attack by viruses or pests. In tropical systems the grass Typha domingensis has proved useful in constructed wetlands, since it is found native in many parts of the Northern Territory's seasonally inundated flood plains (20) and is tolerant of acidic waters with a pH as low as 3. Other acid-tolerant species are Eleocharis spp. and Sclera poaliformis. Bulrushes and Typha spp. are also found in North Queensland. Stockpiling of plants gathered from natural wetlands may be necessary for wetland planting to begin. Aquatic species used in the tropics need to survive the annual cycle through to the end of the dry season and be rejuvenated or grow from seed when the wet season recommences.

    3.2 Flow Design
    A vertical flow system has been patented by CSIRO, Australia, and this system is more commonly used for hydraulic flow design than horizontal trench style systems, due to possible short-circuiting problems (13). Subsurface flow systems are generally considered more economical in terms of total area required to construct a suitable wetland (21). The optimal flow rates of water entering the wetland are dependent on a number of factors, including the density of plants and the substrate type, but generally, the more concentrated the contaminants in the water, the less the flow rate, to allow maximal contact of water with sediments. Suggested loading rates range from 0.16 to 12 ha/1000m3/day (22). Surface flow systems are generally loaded less than sub surface flow systems.3.3 Classes of Mine Waste WatersMine site runoff waters, which contain solutions from mineral processing residues and waste rock can be classed as follows (23):
    1. Mildly alkaline waters
      These waters are derived from groundwater which has contacted carbonate minerals, and are generally bicarbonate-rich. Sources include pit dewatering (24) and seepage from carbonate-containing waste rock material for mildly alkaline runoff. Highly alkaline waters result from cyanide leaching or bauxite dissolution; such waters are not generally released unless highly diluted. Wetlands at tropical locations are able to absorb low concentrations of cyanide and its breakdown products (nitrate/nitrite and ammonia) because low levels of cyanide are a nutrient source (a good example of this is at a gold mine at Masbate in the Philippines where crops are grown on cyanide-rich tailings (25)).
    2. Near neutral waters
      The main source of such waters is surface runoff which has ponded and contains little addition of dissolved constituents. Suspended solids may be elevated and may constitute the primary potential pollutant of any released water.
    3. Acidic waters
      The sources of AMD have already been discussed. Sulfate is the dominant anion, with iron, aluminium, manganese and magnesium being the major cations present.

    3.4 Classes of Wetlands
    Wetlands for the remediation of mine waste waters in the tropics can be classed as follows (23):
    1. Existing wetlands;
    2. Enhanced existing wetlands; and
    3. Specific water treatment zones or constructed zones for extreme acid or alkaline conditions, incorporated into artificial wetlands.
    The treatment zones in (iii) incorporate special zones which successively modify the waste water to yield improvement in water quality, which the first two classes may not adequately perform on contaminated acidic waters.

    The use of wetlands in the tropics for AMD treatment has thus far been limited. Examples of wetlands used in treating mine waste waters of near-neutral pH in northern Australia are:

    Ranger Uranium Mine, NT - a constructed wetland which is used to remove uranium, magnesium, manganese and sulfate. Magnesium and some sulfate was not effectively attenuated by the wetland (24)

    Tom's Gully Gold Mine, NT - a natural ox-bow billabong wetland which effectively removed a range of transition metals, as well as arsenic from pit dewatering (24)

    Woodcutter's Silver-Lead-Zinc Mine, NT - a naturally colonised wetland that removes copper, lead, cadmium and zinc; outflow water is then released into a creek(24)

    Hilton base metal mine, Qld - water is degassed to reduce slight acidity, and then a wetland of reeds and algae removes iron, zinc, manganese and thallium (21)

    3.5 Fundamental Processes in Wetlands
    Optimal performance in constructed wetland systems is achieved by incorporating fundamental processes in the treatment zones in the specific order required to give the desired change in water quality. Summarised, these are as follows:
    • the removal of arsenic, uranium, and other heavy metals by passing waters through organic materials;
    • the fixation of heavy metals and arsenic using iron oxides;
    • acid neutralisation, using limestone, which is consumed and requires replacement following consumption;
    • the removal of high concentrations of dissolved iron, which can cause a decrease in the activity of the limestone material; and
    • reducing sulfate to sulfide in the presence of the appropriate bacteria in organic-rich material.
    The order that the wetland and treatment zones must take is determined by the class of waste water being treated. An example of a plan for a wetland system used to treat AMD, would include the following:
    • Treat the iron-rich acid drainage waters emerging from the waste rock dump by allowing it to flow over an open riffle surface of wide surface area. This enables surface oxidation of soluble iron to occur, and thus effective removal of iron from solution.
    • Direct 'oxidised' waters into a below-surface organic-rich/limestone zone with air excluded, creating reducing conditions capable of reducing sulfate to sulfide and removing heavy metals as insoluble sulfides. The closer to neutral pH, the more easily the reduction of sulfate is achieved.
    • Pass exit waters from the 'reducing' zone to the aquatic plant zone which meanders, in order to give maximum contact of waters with the living plants and associated organic matter. The area of aquatic plants should be as large as possible, allowing sediment filtration and metal removal by sediments, organic matter, microbes and plants.
    The above scheme allows zones to be linked in the constructed wetland in a manner that will ensure the continual improvement of waste water quality. Aquatic plants will not, generally, tolerate direct contact with strongly acidic waters. There must be a flow pathway through or around the wetland systems for flood water so that excess waters do not spill over into the wrong places and cause other damage. This consideration applies especially to the tropics since monsoonal storm events can cause large deluges of water. Alternative flow through trenches containing limestone may need to be constructed which will allow for treatment of runoff at high flow rate. Water may need to be pumped in during the dry season to keep the wetland functioning in the following wet season, depending on the plant species used.3.6 Other factorsAn issue of prime importance when constructing wetlands in the tropics is mosquito control. The breeding habits of mosquitoes require them to make use of still water bodies. In the northern parts of Australia mosquito species include: Anopheles spp., which are capable of carrying malaria; Aedes spp. which can carry Ross River virus (which causes epidemic polyarthritis in humans), dengue fever and can infect dogs with heartworm; and Culex spp., which may spread Murray Valley encephalitis virus (26). Some species can disperse many kilometres from their source and bite humans or other animals, and possibly spread the above arboviral viruses. The design of a wetland is critical to its potential for mosquito production; water and vegetation management can be effective for reducing mosquitoes (27). Species of mosquitoes thought to be problematic in wetlands must be considered specifically, but some general techniques in combating mosquito infestation include:
    • manipulating water levels;
    • selecting appropriate plant species;
    • providing water depths unfavourable for mosquito breeding;
    • preventing development of stagnant pools of water; and
    • utilising animals that feed on mosquitoes and mosquito larvae.
    Chemical control is an option not preferred, except as a last resort. In the tropics, in designing a wetland that discourages mosquitoes, it is best to allow for a period in the late dry season when aquatic plants can cease growing and die back, with plant growth recommencing in the wet season, so that watering in the dry is not necessary. Choosing plants that increase diversity of mosquito predators, such as dragonflies and beetles, will help keep mosquito numbers down, and will increase colonisation by insectivorous fish, which will also aid in this respect. If fish are to colonise a wetland, dry-season ponds must become incorporated into wetland design. Ideally, steps should be taken to discourage, if not entirely prevent, birds and other fauna from drinking contaminated water.CONCLUSIONThe tropical wet season results in the accumulation of large amounts of waste water on mine sites. Recharge of waste rock dumps leads to continuous flow of leachates for some months after the end of the wet season.

    Wetlands are a common feature of the tropical landscape and may be adapted to treating waste water from mines. For specific control purposes, however, it is usually necessary to design the wetland system taking into account the kind of waste water (whether mildly alkaline, near-neutral and acid) and specialised treatments which may be necessary before waste water is allowed to come into contact with aquatic plants. It is therefore necessary to understand fundamental processes of contaminants in wetland systems, particularly in the case of AMD. Another environmental consideration is the minimisation of the numbers of mosquitoes which may be the vectors of debilitating tropical diseases.

    Wetland system development for mine sites in the tropics is still in a state of infancy but looks very promising. Inclusion of features to ensure an even flow of water through the wetland must be incorporated, since, if the water is too deep aquatic plants will not grow.

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    16. Jackson, Leland J., Kalff, Jacob, and Rasmussen, Joseph B., "Sediment pH and Redox Potential Affect the Bioavailability of Al, Cu, Fe, Mn, and Zn to Rooted Aquatic Macrophytes", January 1993, pp 143-148. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci.
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    Barry Noller (FRACI, PhD University of Tasmania) is president of the RACI and has been Principal Environmental Chemist, Mines Division, Department of Mines and Energy, Darwin, since 1990. From 1980-1990 he was a Research Scientist at the Alligator Rivers Region Research Institute, Jabiru where he undertook substantial work on physico-chemical processes in the tropical environment, particularly the aquatic environment and its interaction with uranium mining. He has been actively involved with the RACI in many areas and was chairman of the Environmental Chemistry Division (1993-1995).

    Gretel Parker received her B.Sc. degree with 1st Class Honours in 1995 from the Northern Territory University, majoring in computational chemistry. She has worked in Mines Division, Department of Mines and Energy, Darwin, as a graduate trainee under the supervision of Dr. Barry Noller since June 1995.



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