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Government investigation provides damning picture of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill

Anthony Swift

Posted July 10, 2012

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Thumbnail image for Section of pipe from Kalamazoo spill c National Transportation Safety Board.jpg

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) heard the major findings of its two year investigation of the Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill, which released over a million gallons of corrosive tar sands into the Kalamazoo River watershed in July 2010. The Kalamazoo spill has clearly demonstrated how dirty and dangerous tar sands pipelines are, even more dangerous than conventional oil pipelines. Nearly two years after what has become the most expensive pipeline disaster in U.S. history, emergency responders are still struggling to clean up the Kalamazoo River. The government's investigation raises serious questions about whether corrosive tar sands can be safely moved on the U.S. pipeline system, especially when they cross farms and waters in the U.S. heartland as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would do. In particular, the NTSB provides a damning picture of Enbridge’s pipeline safety measures. As one NTSB board member put it, this investigation did not only show corrosion of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline, but also demonstrates systemic corrosion of Enbridge’s pipeline safety program.

"Delegating too much authority to the regulated is tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen house." Deborah Hersman, Chair of NTSB

NTSB’s report shows in glaring detail that the $807 million tar sands spill was the result of Enbridge taking advantage of weak pipeline safety regulations and poor oversight by federal pipeline safety regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA). Enbridge failed to identify multiple risks to pipeline safety, failed to properly identify the spill, and lacked the resources or planning to mitigate the spill. NTSB staff found that the Kalamazoo spill could and should have addressed the causes of the Kalamazoo spill proactively.

NTSB made several major findings:

  • The cause of the rupture of Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline was caused by the interaction of stress cracking and corrosion.
  •  Enbridge had been aware of both the corrosion and cracking on line 6B for five year, but the Canadian tar sands company failed to consider how the combination of corrosion and cracking would interact to lead to a pipeline rupture.
  • Enbridge continued to operate the pipeline for 17 hours after the spill despite warnings from the leak detection system.  The operator took no steps to investigate the potential leak, did not respond to 911 calls reporting the smell of oil, and only shutdown the pipeline after third-parties located the spill.
  • Enbridge’s spill response plan was grossly inadequate for addressing a spill of this magnitude. The company’s closest responder was 10 hours away. Only a small trailer of equipment had been prepositioned to respond to a spill.
  • Federal pipeline regulators at PHMSA permitted the series of mistakes by a combination of ambiguous regulations and poor pipeline safety oversight.

Perhaps of greatest concern is the causes of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill point to a systemic lack of a culture of safety in the pipeline industry and a failure of safety oversight by regulators at PHMSA. NTSB’s findings highlight the urgency to address the general failures in the nation’s pipeline safety system and to proactively address the risks of tar sands pipelines.

While NTSB did not specifically address ways in which the unique risks of tar sands contributed to the spill and the severity of its impact, the panel presented several conclusions which implicated tar sands:

  • The pipeline’s failure was in part due external corrosion which combined with stress corrosion cracking, led to a pipeline failure. We’ve discussed for some time how the higher temperatures of tar sands can speed corrosion while pressure variations that can occur in viscous, or thick, tar sands can contribute to cyclic pipeline stress.
  • Enbridge’s failure to identify the spill was in a large part due to a leak detection system prone to false alarms. We have discussed in some detail that more viscous, or thicker, tar sands leads to far more “noise” for pipeline leak detection systems which may trigger false alarms – meaning that a real spill is not identified.
  • Enbridge was not prepared for a spill involving oil which did not float on the top of a river body. As we've seen, a large percentage of tar sands diluted bitumen sinks in waterbodies soon after a spill. The company not only lacked sufficient quantities of spill response equipment, but they had the wrong type of spill response equipment which only contained oil floating on the water's surface. PHMSA’s oversight in this area was found to be extremely lacking. The NTSB found that federal regulators are not taking their obligation to approve spill response plans seriously. This may explain why PHMSA has excluded the question of how to respond to tar sands spills from the scope of their study on the safety of tar sands pipelines. Without specific knowledge of how tar sands behaves when spilled, it will be impossible to correct the deficiencies in spill response planning which increased the cost and damage of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill.

NTSB made 19 recommendations for DOT, PHMSA, Enrbidge and spill responders. As the agency concluded, pipeline safety should be more than a slogan. The Kalamazoo tar sands spill was the result of multiple mistakes made by Enbridge but federal regulators are also culpable. Both federal regulators and the pipeline industry have too often treated this issue as a public relations issue prior to spills and disaster management afterward. There is a better way - one that requires strong, clearly outlined regulations and a pipeline safety agency focused on preventing spills rather than responding to them.

Photo courtesy of NTSB

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Kim FeilJul 10 2012 02:50 PM

Michelle BarlondSmith, lived in the trailer court nearby this spill. The 11 residents of who died lived in the same trailer court where the tar sands oil spill, which flowed right past their doorsteps and yards. The people who died included some whose cancer was in remission or had other chronic illnesses that worsened after the spill. Michelle is co-founding a new group, Shout Out!, to share these stories and other similar ones. Shout Out is planning a “wall” of names and brief descriptions of lives truncated by the Enbridge disaster. Benzene is diluted with the tarsands...not good.

BSJul 11 2012 10:34 AM

Excuse me? You say there is "a systemic lack of a culture of safety in the pipeline industry"??? This based on the actions of a small subset of the whole industry?

Do you have any facts to back up your claims about the industry as a whole? As a lawyer, I'm sure you are competent enough to know that your statement is slander, which is illegal.

I cannot speak for the entire industry, but I the companies with which I have direct experience absolutely do have a culture of safety. Please publically retract your statement.

Also, while I certainly do not defend Enbridge's shortcomings, your analysis of the spill report is less than accurate. And again speaking from experience, the idea that there is a lack of PHMSA oversight is preposterous.

The US pipeline industry's safety record (ex: barrels spilled per barrel-mile of oil shipped) has improved greatly in the past 12 years (compare pre-2000 to post-2000). This is due in large part to PHMSA regulations, development of company cultures where safety is paramount, and consolidation of pipelines from small operators to large operators.

Anthony SwiftJul 11 2012 04:54 PM

I’m not getting into this in detail in the comments section. However, many of the conclusions you take issue with are those of the National Transportation Safety Board’s chairperson and investigators. Here are just a couple comments from NTSB’s chair during her opening remarks:

“And, from the regulators - upon which the people of Marshall depended for the well being of their community - there was too little regulatory oversight.”

“The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration provides this safety net for our citizens and our communities. In this rupture, we saw the operator take advantage of weak regulations for assessing and repairing crack indications; and PHMSA was ineffective in overseeing Enbridge's pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures, and public awareness programs; and had inadequate review of oil spill response plans.”

“Last year, we were in this room talking about PG & E and the explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and injured 58 more. Today, we meet to talk about Enbridge and significant environmental damage in Marshall, Michigan, with more than 840,000 gallons of oil released and record cleanup costs. In both cases, we found problems with integrity management programs, control centers, public awareness programs, and emergency response.”

The full three hour NTSB presentation is here:

There are a number of areas in NTSB’s presentation that expand the problems with Enbridge’s culture of safety beyond that organization and to issues in the industry as a whole (just as an example, look at the Q&A around 1:27).

Tom RichardsJul 11 2012 06:27 PM

Note to BS (a most appropriate name): Slander? And you wonder why people hate lawyers?

Andrew WJul 11 2012 10:21 PM

I love how BS (a most appropriate name) throws out "slander" but won't name any of the companies he works with that have such excellent records. I doubt you are a lawyer...would guess instead that you are a CLOWN.
As in...that's a clown response, bro.

BSJul 11 2012 11:07 PM

Tom--I am not a lawyer. Anthony is. If you are going to attack me, please at least read what I say more carefully. Also, I think you owe Anthony an apology. Why do you hate him?

BSJul 11 2012 11:17 PM


I assume you understand the concept of how a bad apple spoils the bunch. PG&E's and Enbridge's actions are inexcusable. Pretending that the actions of a few represent the whole is also inexcusable. I think it's called prejudice.

I pointed out to you that the pipeline industry as a whole is on track to have it's best year ever in terms of fewest barrels spilled. You agree that is a correct statement, right?

Can you please also confirm that when you compare the past 10 years to the previous 10, that fatalities are down 31%, injuries are down 36%, and barrels spilled down 21%?

Can you confirm these improvements occurred even as reporting requirements became stricter and pipeline shipments increased?

Please no long-winded response. Just confirm or deny the improvement.

Here's the link to the data again, for your reference.

Again, please just confirm or deny the improvement.

John LiffeeJul 12 2012 11:08 AM

I love this BS fellow: a self-described career oil-industry insider, hiding behind anonymity, accusing those looking out for our health and safety of slander — and extolling the "culture of safety" in the pipeline industry.

This is as laughable a spin job as you'll find.

He fails to mention that the relationship between Big Oil and the agency responsible for policing pipelines is closer to that between Mexico's drug cartels and its beleagured police than it is to any sort of functional, independent public oversight of an industry so subject to environmental catastrophe.

He somehow forgets that for 20 years the industry has averaged more than 100 significant spills a year, that spills are an "oily reality" of the industry,

He wants to obscure what it'd be like to have this kind of neighbor.

I call BS on you, buddy.

BSJul 12 2012 02:00 PM

To keep John Liffee honest, I will point out that a "significant spill" is any spill greater than 50 barrels.

Using the same link I provided, anyone interested can find out that significant spills in the past 10 years have declined 20% by spill count and 50% total volume spilled.

John, could you please confirm or deny my numbers? Here is the data:

Can you please also confirm or deny the improvement I showed yesterday?

Oh, and thank you for posting that NY Times article that confirms the improvements I've described. If there are ways to improve PHMSA, that's great. But an industry having a close relationship with the entity that regulates it is not necessarily a bad thing. If both entities are committed (and they are), then a close relationship is more productive than an adverserial one.

You can call me names all you want. I'll stick to the facts. I've shown the data. Rather than argue intelligently, you prefer to attack me. That's fine. It works to my advantage. Please continue.

LHJul 12 2012 02:38 PM

Using your site:

The 3 year average of gross barrels spilled is nearly identical to the 20 year average (122k vs. 125k).

The 3 year average # of spills has declined 10% relative to the 20 year average (122 vs. 137).

Neither of these suggests any real improvement. In fact it suggests spills are becoming more severe as far as barrels per spill.

Fatalities and injuries are basically an irrelevant measure of how safe a system is; they're a measure of how many people happen to be nearby when something tragic happens. At any rate, fatalities have held constant at 2/yr. Injuries have decreased by 67%, which is obviously good, but again, is dependent upon the people there, not the severity of the system failure. I'll also note that this only counts injuries requiring hospitalization, so all the figures are skewed down.

And when does it stop being "a few bad actors" or a "small subset" and when does it become endemic in the culture? Or are you implying that 2 or 3 companies are responsible for all 122 violations?

It's laughable that you think you're winning this argument

BSJul 12 2012 03:08 PM

I compare the past 10 years to the previous 10 years because there have been significant improvements in the past 10 years. You cannot look at just a couple of years because there is so much variation, it obscures the trend.

However, if you would like to use the most recent data, why are you not counting the 2012 data, which is the best performance the industry has ever had? If you go cherry-pick whatever data set suits you, you can tell whatever story you want. I prefer to take an objective look at the actual trend.

And by the way, the improvements of the past 10 years have come in spite of the fact that reporting requirements have gotten MUCH stricter, meaning fewer incidents are going un-reported.

So I'll ask you, too. Are the improvements I listed accurate or not?


A statement such as "Fatalities and injuries are basically an irrelevant measure of how safe a system is" is something I'd expect from an environmental idealogue. Fatalities and injuries are irrelevant? Safety is the #1 priority of any good operator. The only good number of fatalities and injuries is zero.

Leave it to someone like you to care about spills damaging the environment, but not give a crap about how many people are hurt or killed. Injuries and fatalities are not random. That's why we have HCAs (high consequense areas) that get special attention. That you would treat them as irrelevant is very telling of out of touch with reality environmental extremists are.

I take a comment like that personally. It takes a real class act to not care about the people who are harmed when there is an accident.

LHJul 13 2012 09:58 AM

Give me a break. We're talking about the inherent safety of a system. Let's make an analogy of playing poker.

If I have 4-7, and you have A-A, and I go all in, it was a terrible decision. If 5-6-8 comes on the board and I win, that doesn't change that I made a bad decision. I got lucky.

Likewise, if no one dies in an accident, that doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible accident caused by faulty systems; it means no one was nearby.

The fact of the matter is the number of accidents has remained high, which is indicative of businesses taking a lackluster approach to improving safety.

And finally, note again that THE NUMBER OF YEARLY FATALITIES HAS NOT EVEN CHANGED. So if preventing death is their #1 priority, they're doing an awfully crappy job.

And if comparing 10 yr to 10 yrs prior ios your only acceptable way of looking at it, they still show NO IMPROVEMENT in eliminating fatalities.

As for the rest, comparing 3 yrs vs 20 yrs is the exact opposite of cherry picking and/or looking at short term trends with large variance.

Looking at 2012, on the other hand, is the exact definition of cherry picking. For starters, the year is only 1/2 through. And I'm pretty sure 6 months is shorter term than 3 yrs or 20 yrs.

How about 10 years, is that long enough for you? Because while there is an improvement from 2002-2001 relative to 92-01, it's actually gotten worse over the past 10 years! The 3 yr and 5 yr averages are worse for barrels spilled relative to the 10 year, so there's an upward trend. And number of spills has remained constant. And again, FATALITIES HAVE NOT LESSENED.

And hey, let's count 2012 just for fun - it's on pace for the most fatalities in a single year! So even if there are (hopefully) none the rest of the year, it once again shows the industry is no better at preventing the loss of life.

And as usual with topics involving you, I'm done replying.

BSJul 13 2012 11:06 AM

You say, "And if comparing 10 yr to 10 yrs prior ios your only acceptable way of looking at it, they still show NO IMPROVEMENT in eliminating fatalities."

I'm not sure where you are getting your information from. Pipeline fatalities are down from 226 during 1992-2001 to 155 during 2002-2011. That's a decline of 31%. Injuries are down 36%.

If you're looking at hazardous liquid lines only, fatalities are only down 5%, but fatalities on liquid line incidents are already extremely rare. Injuries, however, are down a whopping 62%!

And no, 2012 is not shaping up to be the worst year ever. Pipeliene fatalities have averaged 15.5 per year, and this year is on pace for 12. That, by my math is 23% below average. Liquid line fatalities are at 3, but the frequency of fatalities is so low that extrapolating from 6 months to 12 is meaningless. They're more likely to finish the year at 3 fatalities than they are to have three more.

With respect to fatalities, if you look into WHY people die, you'll find that it is not irrelevant at all. When people are nearby, its generally because either somoene was digging in the line right of way (and probably hit the line), or because it was a small gas distribution line serving a populated area. These aren't random issues.

One of the reasons fatalities are down so much is because of programs such as GIS mapping that do a better job of knowing exactly where pipelines are. Another reason is because of the 811 (call before you dig) program and public relations programs. These are preventive measures that have been taken by pipeline operators and gov't regulators who do care about saftey.

BSJul 13 2012 02:59 PM

Anthony--You're much better at not putting your foot in your mouth than everyone else, but your silence speaks volumes. Why can't you give credit where credit is due and recognize the significant improvements while also reminding us that there is still more that can be done?

LH--To reiterate, you say deaths and injuries are "random" and basically don't matter. The pipeline industry and its regulators do care, and they say otherwise. They chose to implement measures that have directly and significantly reduced deaths and injuries over the past 10 years.

With respect to the reports, Enbridge's failures are frankly embarassing. They were ignoring a lot of the things that were put in place over the past 10 years to improve safety and prevent incidents like this. The overall record I've shared speaks to the fact that this is not typical for the industry as a whole. So yes, Anthony's comments are illegal slander.

Anthony SwiftJul 13 2012 07:12 PM

BS – As far as the legal issue you raise, I am a lawyer, aware of that area of law, and am comfortable with the statement. Let's leave it at that - I think that you are probably more interested in the issue of fairness and accuracy in any event.

Regarding the fairness and accuracy of saying the NTSB''s investigation of the Kalamazoo spill pointed to shortcomings in the industry's culture of safety, here are four thoughts: 1) the NTSB made that connection in its presentation, 2) Enbridge continues to defend its behavior in the Kalamazoo spill as either meeting or exceeding industry standards and practices, 3) TransCanada uses the same method for calculating worst case spill scenarios that Enbridge used and is being fined for because it grossly underestimated the risk in line 6B, 4) Andrew Black, President of the Association of Oil Pipelines, the tradegroup representing the oil pipeline industry in the U.S. (and very influential shaping pipeline law and regulations), argued in the WSJ that Enbridge was a good company that had a bad accident.

Those facts point to fundamental issues beyond Enbridge. Please note, that’s not to say that there aren’t operators in industry, or people in Enbridge, that take safety very seriously. But an industry is judged by the bar it sets, and NTSB’s investigation suggests that that bar is currently significantly lower than it should be.

Of course, good actors who have already adopted effective practices and safety measures would have nothing to worry about raising the industry's bar, as they would already well above it.

BSJul 13 2012 09:07 PM

"But an industry is judged by the bar it sets...."

The bar can be represented by numbers. I described to you the statistics and the significant safety and environmental improvements that have been made in the past 10 years. Has the pipeline industry (in conjunction w/gov't regulators) made the significant safety improvements I described?

Please answer "yes" or "no".

The "silence" I described in my last comment refers to your unwillingness to answer the above question and admit that the industry as a whole has made admirable progress towards the goal of no spills and not deaths or injuries.

Anthony SwiftJul 14 2012 10:15 AM

BS - In response to a series of tragic, fatal and unnecessary pipeline accidents, Congress passed the Pipeline Safety Act of 2002. Industry fought it at the time (using many of the same arguments it uses today), but it did raise what had been a very low bar for pipeline oversight in this country. For an overview of that, see:

However, as the pipeline safety data you refer to clearly show, progress is eroding. Comparing the 3 year, 5 year and 10 year averages show consistent increases in a) amount of oil spilled, b) amount of oil not recovered, c) damage caused by pipeline accidents, d) pipeline injuries. Fatalities during this time have been relatively constant. There has been a slight decrease in number of incidents, but the incidents that have occurred have been worse on all those metrics.

The NTSB findings show that we still have a long way to go when it comes to pipeline safety in this country. The 2002 pipeline safety law took many unnecessary deaths to get on the books and it was a law industry didn't want at the time.

It would be a tragic mistake to use the progress that was made by that law to fight additional reform when it has become clear that it is necessary.

BSJul 14 2012 12:59 PM

Anthony, my comments have been clear. The only acceptable accident total is zero. There is always room for improvement, and I support the recommendations of the Enbridge report.

However, your claims of the gains reversing are, not suprisingly, false. I graphed the three-year moving averages. You can visually see the dramatic improvement beginning around ten years ago. Since then, the average goes up and down, but there is no errosion of the improvement. And if you take 2012 YTD into account, the trends look even better.

The only metric that shows a jump is injuries. That jump was caused by a singl unfortunate outlier in 2010. 2011 jumped right back down to the trend, and 2012 is trending to be the second lowest number of injures ever.

Property damage measurement changed in 2002, does not account for inflation, and includes 2005 damage due to hurricanes. It's not a very good measurement of industry safety trends.

Again, could you please confirm or deny the improvements? Simple yes or no question.

Anthony SwiftJul 14 2012 01:58 PM

Let's not miss the fact that we are actually agreeing on the important conclusions here - progress can and should be made on pipeline safety, and the NTSB identified some major flaws with Enbridge's safety program and made some important recommendations to rectify them.

As far as the numbers go, I can't help but wonder if we're looking at different ones. The PHMSA data from the website you mention shows eroding gains on all metrics other than fatalities, which have remained constant since the Pipeline Safety At of 2002 I discuss above. From

Annual Property Damage from Pipeline Accidents (Annual Average):
- 3 year average: $622 million
- 5 year average: $515 million
- 10 year average $449 million

Gross Barrels Spilled by Pipeline System (Annual Average)
- 3 year average: 123,000 barrels
- 5 year average: 113,000 barrels
- 10 year average: 111,000 barrels

Spilled Barrels not recovered (Annual Average)
- 3 year average: 88,000
- 5 year average 81,000
- 10 year average: 70,000

- 3 year average: 78
- 5 year average: 69
- 10 year average: 61

- 3 year average: 16
- 5 year average: 15
- 10 year average: 16

Regarding your note on property damage, these averages only include data from after the property damage metric changed - it's an apples to apples measurement that shows increasing property damage over the last 10 years. The 2005 damage from hurricanes doesn't skew the results - in fact, the pipeline system has caused more damage on average from both 2007-2011 and 2009-2011 than it did in 2002-2011. Hurricane damage thus would mask even greater increases in average property damage over the last five years.

For the simple answer - no, I don't see improvement over the last 10 years. The data shows increasing product spilled, less recovered and more damage as time goes on.

Again, for progress made with the Pipeline Safety Act of 2002, I'd reference my comment above.

BSJul 15 2012 10:29 AM

"As far as the numbers go, I can't help but wonder if we're looking at different ones."

No, the difference is that you are using fake statistical analysis to come up with a fake trend. You're taking 2010, which was an outlier year, and then gradually diluting it with more and more data, creating the false impression that the trend is worsening.

But hey, if you think it's OK to use an outlier to pretend there is a trend where none exists, great. Then I'll do the same and say that the planet has cooled almost 0.1degC since 1998. So by your rationale, the planet has been cooling for the last 14 years.

Agreed? No? You mean you're only OK with twisting the numbers when it is to your advantage? Gee, how shocking.

When there is significant variation in data from year to year, trends are shown using moving averages. Plot the moving averages, including the 2012 data (double it, since it's half a year). Do that, and let me know what you come up with.

And no, we're not really in agreement on anything. I believe that the pipeline industry and the gov't have come a long way in making our nation's pipelines safer and safer. I also believe our goal should be zero incidents, zero injuries, zero barrels spilled.

The only thing the NRDC cares about is capitalizing on mistakes and using them to attack the industry as a whole. You don't want safety improvements. That's why you deny that they have even happened in the first place. Because improvements in pipeline safety go against everything you stand for. You WANT accidents. You WANT people to be killed, because that provides ammunition for your cause.

Anthony SwiftJul 15 2012 02:34 PM

The comparisons you’re taking issue with are simply those provided by PHMSA on the site you were citing earlier, not ones I came up with. It’s true, 2010 was a particularly bad year for pipeline accidents (and 2011, 2008 and 2005 weren’t great either); mainly because of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill for which NTSB has cited widespread poor practices by Enbridge (which claims it was following industry standards) and poor oversight by PHMSA.

The 2002 Pipeline Safety Act was propelled by a number of major accidents that led to tragic deaths, contaminated water supplies and millions of gallons spilled. The fact that those accidents could have been prevented led to that law’s passage – and it has improved pipeline safety in the U.S., though industry fought it at the time. We would be in a much worse place today had legislators bought the argument that these preventable disasters were outliers that should be ignored. We’ll be in a much worse place over the next ten years if we ignore the lessons taught by the Kalamazoo, San Bruno, and Allentown pipeline accidents.

Ignoring the gaps in regulations, standards and practices that led to Kalamazoo, San Bruno and Allentown as outliers is like asking Mrs. Lincoln “Other than that, how did you like the play?” Government investigations have shown these weren’t unfortunate but unforeseen, unpreventable accidents. They should not have happened, and with better regulations and practices, would not have happened.

NRDC has been advocating for concrete measures to improve leak detection, integrity management, spill response and regulatory enforcement. These reforms would reduce the incidence of spills and mitigate their impacts when they happen. Nobody wants spills, and most certainly nobody wants people to be injured or killed. In its San Bruno and Kalamazoo investigations, NTSB has painted a clear picture of what we can do to prevent some of these tragic disasters – and they involve more prescriptive regulation, active oversight, and greater enforcement powers by PHMSA.

As NTSB Chair Hersman put it in her closing remarks: “If companies commit to safety with the same vigor that they pursue profits, then we will see integrity management programs with real integrity.”

With that, I’m going to sign off on this thread.

Comments are closed for this post.


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