Oil Spill Stories From Around The Gulf Coast
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
According to the Coast Guard, 120 linear miles of coastline are already affected by the oil spill, and while the cap BP placed over the ruptured well captures close to a half-million gallons a day now, it doesn't get it all, not by a long shot, and no one knows how much damage there's going to be from the millions of gallons that gushed into the gulf since the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon 49 days ago.
It's likely to be August before relief wells provide a permanent solution, and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen warned again today that the cleanup will continue for months, if not years.
Tar balls appeared on beaches as far east as Pensacola, Florida. There were some reports of oil-soaked sea birds in Texas. Everywhere in between, both wildlife and the people who work on and around the water continue to struggle.
Later in the hour, on the Opinion Page, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us today on news today of Helen Thomas' abrupt retirement after unleashing a controversial opinion.
But first, scenes from the oil spill. If you have experience cleaning up oil spills, if you're currently involved cleaning up this one in the gulf, give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin with Kim Chauvin. She's co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Company in Houma, Louisiana, and joins us from her office there. Nice to have you back with us on the program.
Ms. KIM CHAUVIN (Co-owner, Mariah Jade Shrimp Company): Hi, thanks, appreciate it.
CONAN: And Kim Chauvin, we spoke to you shortly after the spill. Can you tell us what's changed since April?
Ms. CHAUVIN: Well, what's changed is that the people are becoming even more frustrated with BP and our legislators, state - be it federal legislators, the administration - Obama's administration - and even Coast Guard.
Some of the things that we're coming up against is the sicknesses that some of the crews have experienced through, they feel, the dispersant that was sprayed. And while Coast Guard and BP is telling you one thing, our guys are experiencing other things.
We have requested, demanded, pleaded, begged for fitted respirators for our guys, and it seems to be that our fishermen are expendable at this point in time, to this big company. And it doesn't seem fair when all that's going on and this is the one thing that I've kept saying, is that BP has destroyed our fishing grounds, for the most part, and where we're from. On the western side of Louisiana, it's a different thing.
But they have, you know, done a great damage in our areas, and yet our you know, when it comes to our health, no one cares.
CONAN: What kind of illnesses are your men reporting?
Ms. CHAUVIN: Well, this is the thing. When you look at the dispersant and what's in the dispersant, it's I'm not sure that I'm going to say it right, but I know that it's an ethanol, and it's 2 - it's called 2, and it has a dash, butoxy and ethanol.
And some of the things that it causes is, you know, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness and passing out. Some of our guys have experienced this.
We've had nine guys that were rushed in, and they were brought to West Jefferson Hospital, and at this point, we're having a few others that are, you know, experiencing some same symptoms. But this is the issue.
Most guys do not just pick up, oh, well, I'm lightheaded, let me go to the doctor.
CONAN: Right, no, these are these are people who are used to working. What are they doing? Are they working for BP, trying to clean up the oil?
Ms. CHAUVIN: Yes, yes, they are working for BP, trying to clean up the oil. And for some reason, people get this notion that we should be appreciative that they have hired these boats on, and it's like, don't people get it that we would be fishing, we would be shrimping, crabbing, doing what we do, doing what we love to do. Appreciative is, how about you follow safety regulations and do what you're supposed to do, and don't come damage our parts of the world?
And while I understand there is a need for the oil and gas industry, I also understand there's a need to do the right things in your industry, such as follow safety rules.
So when we came back to the sickness parts of it, I have met with Lisa Jackson, which is EPA, and I've met with Andy Winer, which is NOAA. We requested a few things, such as air-quality monitors, that BP is not footing for, because we want to make sure that we have the information that comes off of them.
And NOAA has just said that there is there is some testing done at 2,800 feet up in the air. Well, we want stuff that's down where our guys are.
CONAN: Ten feet from the...
Ms. CHAUVIN: Right, right. I mean, these guys are on the water. The oil is on the surface of the water, and there's toxic stuff coming there, and then there's dispersant coming down. It's like, you know, now you're figuring, what's the tradeoff here? You know, yes, you may not lose everything you have, but if my boys and I have a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old on the boats if they lose their health, you know, is there even you know, can you even take this and look at it in a way that this is fair?
You know, these guys are not expendable. And we've asked BP, EPA, NOAA, our federal government, our state government, to push BP to get fitted respirators for all.
CONAN: And nothing's working?
Ms. CHAUVIN: No, nothing's working. So I'm hoping a push from the rest of the world will say, you know, this happened with the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. These guys were not fitted with the safety equipment that they should've been fitted with, and what Exxon did was - they threw these people away, is what they pretty much did. Too bad you're sick. Go away. You know, nobody's listening anymore. And if we don't take this to task now, we're in trouble.
CONAN: Are guys, are people working for other companies - because a lot more than just your crews are out there are they experiencing the same kind of problems?
Ms. CHAUVIN: Yeah, there's different task forces, different places. So yes, there are some that are experiencing the headaches and the dizziness and such, yes.
CONAN: And at this point, where does the request stand? I mean, you've got to talk to pretty senior officials in the government.
Ms. CHAUVIN: Well, I've been emailing NOAA, and they say that EPA has they're flying, and they're doing the 2,800 foot, and they're doing 25 compound you know, they're testing 25 compounds in real time and 500, you know, flights.
And you know, there's just a whole bunch of stuff that they're saying they're doing, but what we're asking for, we're not getting.
EPA is saying that they're pushing not but push on, but they're passing it on to OSHA. Well, OSHA's jurisdiction is cut off when you get to the, you know, when you get offshore, and that's where our guys are.
Our state officials are saying that they're talking to BP. Our federal officials are saying that they're talking to BP. Well, I don't want you to talk, I want you to do something. I want you to do what you were voted in to do: Make things happen. And that's not being done.
CONAN: And besides that big problem - and I don't mean to overlook it -but in terms of pay, are the boats earning as much as they would have, had they been fishing or crabbing or shrimping?
Ms. CHAUVIN: Oh, well, let's get to pay. Let me tell you how this works for us. Had I not camped out at the place that they have subcontracted, at the place that BP subcontracted, we would be waiting for an awfully long time to be paid.
I don't think that that's being taken care of. This whole bit is so unorganized, it's unbelievable. We have just sent out our other invoices, our next two invoices, and I havent heard anything about the first one. And I know that at the end of this week coming, I'm going to have to go sit out and make them pay us again.
Now, we're I only take care of 24, 26 boats. So I'm watching out for those boats. But there's a whole bunch of boats out there, and it has just taken an awfully long time for them to get paid. And yeah, they're making OK, but if you don't get the money when the bills are there, then you're not doing real good.
But they are doing OK at this point. Would they rather be fishing? You betcha. They would rather be doing what they love to do. I mean, we're like five generations into this at this point. My boys would much rather be trawling.
CONAN: It looks like it's going to be a while before they're going to be able to get back to that, though.
Ms. CHAUVIN: Yeah, it is, and that's the other sad part, you know. And we have our issues with claims right now. The people who are making the claims, it seems it depends which claims office you go to and which person you get to - depend if you're going to get anything.
CONAN: Well, we wish you and your crews the best of luck, and I certainly hope that everybody's OK.
Ms. CHAUVIN: OK, thank you.
CONAN: We'll check back with you, Kim.
Ms. CHAUVIN: OK, bye-bye.
CONAN: Kim Chauvin, co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Company, south of Houma in Louisiana. We want to hear from those of you who have worked on oil cleanups, whether this one or ones in the past, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Evelyn's(ph) on the line with us from Husum - is that right? - in Washington.
EVELYN (Caller): Husum.
CONAN: Husum. Go ahead, please.
EVELYN: Yeah, I was in Cordova, Alaska, when the spill hit up there - I was working for the local fisheries agency. And it was a goat rope, just like this one is, but we I was put on the ground to do damage assessment on herring. It was the spill happened the 25th, and our herring, which is a huge industry, thousands of tons of fish...
CONAN: This was up in Prince William Sound?
EVELYN: Yes. They were headed to the spawning areas, and so we went on the ground. And it was what I saw was, you had an organized response with the cleanup, with the Coast Guard in charge, who knew very little about toxicity and the cleanup. And then you had the federal government side was open-90 damage assessment. And those two were often well, they were never coordinated, and they were often opposed to one another.
And we didn't I don't think here's the warning for the people down there, is the damage assessment that was done is how you're going to capture your long-term - how you're going to reclaim your long-term losses.
And if the damage assessment isn't done properly, you'll never know. And our lessons were the cleanup did almost as much, if not more, damage than the oil spill itself.
Now, up there, they were using hot water, spraying on the beaches, but the oil goes into the food chain and then the excuse me the impacts of that over the years is this like, dropping a pebble in the pond, ring after ring.
So we ended up with disease, immuno-suppression, reproductive impairment problems, eventually community shifts, population crashes. The herring that I work on, I'm still working on them. The population crashed, has never returned.
The whole community structure shifted. And then the species that apparently weren't worth much to the commercial guys or to any of the agencies overseeing them, like the charismatic birds and mammals, the little forage fish that nobody fishes on, nobody looked at those guys, and yet when that population collapsed, it caused this huge...
CONAN: Sure, up and down the food chain, yeah.
EVELYN: Up and down the food chain. And so the better that I mean, I know everybody's focused on cleanup right now, but if that oil - through the food chain and it changes, it turns into oil metabolites, and then it becomes carcinogenic if that is not tracked well, then these people will never recover their claims. And in the case of the Exxon Valdez...
CONAN: Quickly, Evelyn.
EVELYN: You know, we never did. We they never got it. It went to the Supreme Court, and they took away their punitive - and my husband, who is a....
CONAN: Evelyn, we've got to go. I'm sorry, but thanks very much for the phone call. Scenes from a spill, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
President Obama today did his best to reassure people the Gulf Coast will bounce back from the massive oil spill. He acknowledged that will take time, effort and a lot of money, money he expects to get from BP.
Today, we're talking with people affected by the oil spill in the gulf. If you have experience cleaning up oil spills, if you're currently involved in cleaning up this one, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Trimmel Gomes, senior reporter for member station WFSU in Tallahassee. He's been covering the spill and the cleanup efforts, and joins us now from the studios of member station WUWF, down the road in Pensacola, Florida. Nice to have you with us today.
TRIMMEL GOMES: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And we hear reports of tar balls washing up on some of the beaches there. Are people worried this is just the beginning?
GOMES: Actually, if you were to come out here, people are still swimming in the waters. The tar balls that we're seeing are like, they're quarter-sized. So there's not a lot on the beach.
But if you do take a walk there, be mindful that you'll get that stain on your feet, that chocolatey-looking substance of grease. So but some people are trying to take in as much of the beach as they can before it's all gone, as they say.
CONAN: And those are some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
GOMES: Indeed, indeed, pristine beaches. If you are out here, you can still see, it's still white. The emerald water is still glistening. So it's a good time to still be here. But of course, the locals are very concerned, and they're seeing that what they're watching on the news is actually a reality, and they're not too happy about that.
CONAN: Sure, and they've got to be worried about tourism. People going on vacation aren't going to be happy about taking their kids down to water they think might have oil in it.
GOMES: Tourism is very big here in Florida, a $65 billion industry, and of course, with the news of this happening, actually seeing it happening, people are worried that it's scaring them away from actually coming and visiting here.
So it's a topic of concern for people who rely on the tourism industry and of course, you can't escape the seafood industry - who right now, they are crying. They are seeing what's happening in Louisiana. As Kim was saying, the fishermen, they're actually seeing that this is actually happening to us right now.
CONAN: Are the waters off Florida closed to fishing as of now?
GOMES: It is not closed to fishing. It's still open. Nine miles out, shore and state waters, it's still open. People can still go fishing. But of course, like charter boat captains, they usually go into the federal waters to go and get their deep-sea fishing, and they are being hurt that that's being closed off. So right now, in state waters, that's it's still safe to fish.
CONAN: Are there booms off the beaches there?
GOMES: There are booms off the beaches here, here in Pensacola Beach, even before for those who are familiar with the area, taking that three-mile bridge, you can even see the orange boom line across the bridgeway, and it's not hard to miss - to see the boom line - and just the backdrop of the shimmer of the water, and seeing these orange booms trying to stop the oil from getting close to shore.
CONAN: And I know this must are people sort of praying that the wind continues to blow offshore?
GOMES: They're praying, they're hoping, but they're seeing that that's not the case. They're seeing it here as they walk along the beach. It's staining their toes and actually, what I'm seeing, it's some people are actually going out - a couple that I met over the weekend taking it upon themselves as the HAZMAT crew, BP crews that are cleaning the beach, they said they're not going to sit by and let BP do this. They simply can't do this all on their own.
So they got the bags, the grocery store bags, from their kitchen and Latex gloves, and they went out there and started picking up the tar as much as they can, and they got a pretty good handful.
CONAN: Is that safe?
GOMES: That is questionable. Officials are saying how they shouldn't be touching the tar balls. But what they're doing, they're taking as much precautions on their own. They're wearing the gloves.
CONAN: How is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission preparing in the eventuality?
GOMES: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, they are serving they actually took me out this morning by the Pensacola Pass, to actually observe and see where the oil is coming in. It's the bulk of it right now is like nine miles by the state line, water.
They're there, they're surveying, and they're trying to alert locals as much as they can to be aware, like you know, the trajectory of where the oil is heading, and which - that is eastward, and making its way to Bay County.
CONAN: I know people hope, and I know people pray, but this is going to be months. It seems like it would be an extraordinary something approaching a miracle if it didn't wash ashore and in quantity.
GOMES: It is here for the long haul. No one knows how to deal with this or what the future will hold, but they're taking it one day at a time.
CONAN: Well, Trimmel Gomes, thanks very much for your time today, and good luck there, covering the story.
GOMES: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Trimmel Gomes, senior reporter for member station WFSU in Tallahassee, covering the spill. He joined us today from member station WUWF, down the road in Pensacola.
Let's get a call in. This is Jim(ph), Jim with us from Norfolk in Virginia.
JIM (Caller): How are you today?
CONAN: I'm good, thanks.
JIM: You have some questions about cleaning up oil or fuel spill?
CONAN: Yeah, and you've done that?
CONAN: And what would your advice be for these people going out with Latex gloves and garbage bags?
JIM: They're putting themselves at extreme risk.
CONAN: What was your experience?
JIM: Well, we had full personal protective equipment, as far as Tyvek suits and respirators.
CONAN: And where was that?
JIM: Norfolk, Virginia.
CONAN: And what was the spill there like?
JIM: Well, compared to what's going on right now, it's relatively minute, but you know, you're working in the hot sun, it's 80, 90 degrees. Number one, it smells awfully bad. It gives you a headache.
Just to say if you were to get it on a piece of cotton clothing that had contact with your skin and didn't wash it off, it would cause a rash or burn you.
CONAN: So and how long were you at it?
JIM: This was just a couple of weeks, between this stuff. This was nothing compared to what's happened.
CONAN: And this - we're talking about Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas in July and August heat.
JIM: Yeah, I mean, plus, I mean, a certain amount of it, you know, is fuel, and it does evaporate. So (technical difficulties).
CONAN: All right, Jim, thanks very much for helping us out, appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now is Michael Ziccardi, wildlife veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. He joins us from the Spill Command Center in Houma, Louisiana. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. MICHAEL ZICCARDI (Wildlife Veterinarian, University of California at Davis): Oh, thank you, Neal, nice to be here.
CONAN: And I understand you've been working to clean up birds and other wildlife that have been drenched in oil?
Mr. ZICCARDI: I'm working with the bird unit. The actual portion of the response that I'm in charge of is actually caring for the marine mammals and sea turtles that are affected.
CONAN: And have you seen those numbers of the animals affected increase over time?
Mr. ZICCARDI: We have. To date, we've collected just about 300 sea turtles. Most of those have not been externally oiled. They've only had 32 live, oiled sea turtles - and three dead turtles to date.
We have collected 35 dead dolphins but again, only two of those have been oiled on the outside.
CONAN: But any idea of what caused their demise?
Mr. ZICCARDI: Well, we do have animals that die during just normal periods of time. These are greater than normal numbers, but we do have increased search effort out there. So we literally have hundreds of people combing the beaches and the shorelines.
We also have the members of the public that are calling in sightings to an 800 number, but we do have increased numbers. What we're doing now is actually evaluating all of the animals we have, actually doing necropsies, or animal autopsies, on each animal that comes in to try to see exactly what their cause of death is.
CONAN: And what do you do with the ones that are not oiled, that are OK? Do you release them?
Mr. ZICCARDI: We do. We do care for them. We don't collect them unless they're debilitated for some way - have some medical problem. We do care for them and release them, but we are taking them currently, we're taking them to Florida to try to get them out of areas where they could be re-oiled. The worst thing that could happen is, we put time into an animal, trying to return it to normal, and then send it out to be re-oiled.
CONAN: No, I can understand that and the frustration. Are they being tagged for identification as well?
Mr. ZICCARDI: They are. Every animal that goes out is does have a permanent identification. One thing we do really stress during these types of events, even a small oil spill, is that we want to be collecting as much information as possible, from each and every animal that comes into our hands.
By learning what we can, even in small spills, we can learn how to better treat animals in the future. And for this response, since it's so large, learning everything we can from each and every animal - be they live or dead - is really an important thing.
CONAN: How do you get oil off a sea turtle? We've read about people using Dawn detergent on birds. Is that the same process?
Mr. ZICCARDI: It is the same process. It's less laborious than birds. I mean, with birds, you have to make sure you're washing them completely, and you have to get all the way down to the skin and the base of the feathers, and then rinse them completely.
With sea turtles, it's a little easier. It takes less time, but what we're finding is we actually have to repeat the washing, typically on the next day, just to make sure all of that oil is off of them.
CONAN: Anybody who's ever tried to wash a dog can understand this can be difficult. What do you do if the turtle or the bird doesn't go along with this?
Mr. ZICCARDI: Well, we do have skilled and qualified people that have worked a lot with these species, being able to handle them. So obviously, they can cause of a lot of injury to people as well, which is another reason why general volunteers, we typically don't use during these types of events unless we can get them in, get them trained...
Mr. ZICCARDI: ...make sure they're as safe as possible prior to having them assist us.
CONAN: Well, like you, people have come in from as far away as University of California at Davis. How long are you going to be able to stay?
Mr. ZICCARDI: Well, I - my first tour of duty here was a month, and I went back to California for a week. I needed to deal with my oil spill program in California for a bit, and then I'm back here for another month. And so, we do have people rotating in and out from all over -literally, all over the country because we, again, don't know how long this event is actually going to last.
CONAN: Months at minimum.
Mr. ZICCARDI: At minimum. Even when the oil eventually stops coming up, we are anticipating at least several months more of cleanup. And typically, with oil wildlife response, we're oftentimes the last people actually involved during an oil spill because the animals do take time to heal properly in the facility. So definitely, we're in for the long haul.
CONAN: And what are the survival and reproduction rates like after these, for the animals that you treat?
Mr. ZICCARDI: Well, every spill we do, we learn more and more about how animals do on survival. There is information out there saying that animals don't survive long term. And some of the earlier research studies that have looked at this have estimated average survival for birds after an oil spill is on the order of three to five days. Some of the more advanced techniques we've used out of U.C. Davis, what we're actually finding is the average survival rate are months to years. In fact, we had a band return on a brown pelican that we rehabilitated in California, 19 years after releasing it from an oil spill.
Mr. ZICCARDI: So, what we're finding is that these animals do survive and do reproduce. In fact - off of South Africa, reproductive rate is the same in pelicans versus un-oiled animals.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Ziccardi, wildlife veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. He's at the spill command center in Houma, Louisiana. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
You were talking about the brown pelican. These are important nesting grounds - some of the marshlands there, off the coast of Louisiana - for the brown pelican, which was just taken off the endangered list what, a couple years ago?
Mr. ZICCARDI: Absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: Do you fear that this is going to put it back on?
Mr. ZICCARDI: I'm not sure, in this area. Louisiana has a very strong affiliation with pelicans. Even if this doesn't cause broad-scale impacts, they are very important for this area. This is a species that underwent extreme population declines in this region, and slowly but surely came back after the use of DDT was ended. So even if it isn't returned to the list, I think that the interest and the effort that go into trying to save as many of those species as possible is really critical.
CONAN: Well, Michael Ziccardi, we wish you the best of luck. And we'll check back in with you.
Mr. ZICCARDI: OK. Well, thank you. Good talking with you.
CONAN: Good to talk with you. Let's go next to Sonny(ph). Sonny is on the line, with us from Denver.
SONNY (Caller): Yes, hi.
SONNY: Hi, Neal. This is Sonny from Denver. And I was in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I helped 20 years ago. It's interesting how it's about the same time 20 years ago that this happened. I don't think - you know, I hate to be fatalistic here but, you know, from my experience, nothing worked as far as cleanup. You know, we went from scrubbing rocks to spraying rocks to actually using bioremediation - and nothing worked. And I think...
CONAN: Bioremediation - using bacteria to try to eat the oil?
SONNY: Correct. And you know - and that's a risky way of cleaning up. And I remember having, you know, urine tests, you know, every day to make sure that it didn't affect our liver. I'm still alive 20 years later, so, you know - so I guess, you know, no harm to me.
CONAN: You'd like to think that they've figured out something new and better in 20 years.
SONNY: Absolutely, you know. And it's just really interesting. You know, I remember vividly walking - I was in Homer, Alaska, so this is a beautiful place. And I remember vividly the frenzy, you know, a couple of weeks into the spill, and people trying to help, trying to, you know, catch the animals and cleaning them up. And it's - it really is sad because, you know, I think you're hurting more than you're helping if you're not trained to help these animals and also...
CONAN: Yeah, as we heard from...
SONNY: ...know how to dispose, you know.
CONAN: Just heard that from Michael Ziccardi. Thanks very much, Sonny. It's interesting, Homer, Alaska, and Houma, Louisiana, spelled differently, pronounced just about the same. Let's see if we can go one more caller. This is James(ph), James with us from Westchester in Pennsylvania.
JAMES (Caller): How you doing? I worked on an oil spill back in 1968, when I was like, 17 years old.
CONAN: And where was that?
JAMES: This was in North Jersey, a place called Bayonne, New Jersey.
CONAN: Oh, I know it well, yes.
JAMES: You know it well?
JAMES: Great place to live. I wish I was there. It's nice here, but I still miss the city. But anyway, I just want to let people know that as far as long-term health effects, I've been getting migraine headaches ever since.
CONAN: And you think this is entirely due to that experience?
JAMES: Yeah. And the thing is, I only worked on it for 16 hours straight, OK? And it may sound like "Tales from the Crypt" or Alfred Hitchcock, but this is the Gods honest truth. This was working at a Path Mark warehouse, where a whole aisle of salad oil fell. And we had to work on it for 16 hours straight, cleaning it up. And when I got home...
CONAN: Do you think that...
JAMES: ...I was dizzy, nauseated. And this was just from something that you use in cooking. So I can imagine what these people are going through when you start mixing chemicals because after that, I worked at a chemical plant, and I know what they put into these chemicals. So itd be nice for people to know that even if they start feeling better, that this can have a long-term impact that can last you a lifetime.
CONAN: And make sure to get yourself checked out. James, thanks very much.
JAMES: Yeah. OK. Bye.
CONAN: All right. Coming up on the Opinion Page, Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House Press Corps, retires after venting her opinion on Israel and Palestine. Stay with us. David Folkenflik will join us. Im Neal Conan. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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