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DEQ delays final mine decision, sets stage for a nasty holiday gift

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week delayed its expected decision on a permit for the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold, zinc and copper mine proposed for the western Upper Peninsula. Back in September, the agency indicated in a preliminary decision its intent to approve the request from Aquila Resources, opening a final window for the public to weigh in before the final decision set for Dec. 1. The deadline for that final decision has now been pushed back to Dec. 29.

Ho, ho, ugh. If approved, this permit would be a terrible Christmas gift to the people of Michigan, far worse than a lump of coal.

Our review reveals that Aquila’s permit application is deeply flawed, endangers nearby waters held sacred by local Native Americans, fails to meet requirements in state law and therefore should be rejected.

And while the extended decision deadline does not necessarily mean the agency is open to hearing more comments—officially, public comment on the proposed decision ended Nov. 3—we hope you’ll let your elected leaders and the DEQ hear about it anyway. A state review this half-hearted should land the agency’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals squarely on your naughty list.

Below are just few of the problems we found in our review. Our full comments can be found online here.

Alternatives not explored

For starters, Aquila is required by law to describe “feasible and prudent” alternatives that were considered as part of its Environmental Impact Analysis. Aquila provides no such analysis regarding their choice to create—and later backfill with reactive materials—a large, open mine pit on the banks of the Menominee River.  They offer just a 107-word justification with no description or analysis of any alternative approaches.

Menominee gathering

Members of Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe oppose the mine.

Worse, the rationale that is provided for dismissing alternatives is based solely on the applicant’s own economic considerations, not the long-term risks and tradeoffs related to environmental or natural resource concerns.

Similarly, Aquila proposed to process the ore onsite, including using cyanide treatment and flotation techniques to separate the valuable materials from the “waste” material. So why did Aquila not analyze an alternative mining approach in which the ore is removed immediately and processed at an offsite location away from the banks of the Menominee River? Apparently, that approach offers less profit. Or, in Aquila’s own words, “the cost for ore shipment to off-site facilities is not sustainable for the project value.”

Last time we checked, economic considerations alone—i.e., the applicant’s profit motives—are not sufficient to dismiss potential alternatives in an Environmental Impact Assessment. And yet, that approach is apparently good enough for the Michigan DEQ.

Analyzing alternatives—whether it’s the decision to use an open pit approach instead of an underground tunnel, or to process onsite instead of taking reactive materials offsite to be processed—is among the most basic requirements of state mining law in terms of “minimizing actual or potential adverse impacts.” Aquila’s lack of consideration of alternatives alone should justify a denial of the permit as proposed.

Scant details

Beyond failing to explore alternatives, Aquila’s application and the DEQ’s proposed permit also just leave too much of the actual mine plan up in the air. And—here’s the real cause for concern—the DEQ seems to be OK with that.

This permitting process is the department’s opportunity to judge, on behalf of Michigan residents, the rigor and seriousness of the company’s plans to minimize the environmental impacts of its proposed mine. Yet, the DEQ’s proposed permit allows Aquila to sail through the process, even without basic plans and documents that the company has had more than a decade to prepare. The state seems willing to grant the permit first, and then ask the company for fundamental information about how they plan to operate the mine safely.

Here are a few examples:

  • The proposed permit says the mining company “shall submit a plan…to monitor surface water and aquatic biota” and receive written approval of the plan from the DEQ before beginning mine operations. We can’t help but wonder why Aquila does not already have in place a plan for such a basic environmental safeguard. There needs to be a robust plan in place not only before the mining starts, but before any permit is granted.
  • Lake sturgeon

    The Menominee River provides vital spawning habitat for lake sturgeon.

    The permit requires Aquila to perform tests before building a “cut-off wall” to demonstrate that it is capable of keeping contaminated water out of the Menominee River, which is just 150 feet away. But it then lays out steps the company must take, “If the results of monitoring…indicate that the cut-off wall is ineffective for its intended purpose.” Preventing harm to the Menominee River—spawning ground for half of Lake Michigan’s lake sturgeon—should be a fundamental component of any permit for this mine. It’s no place for improvisation.

  • The department says “the permittee shall conduct a water withdrawal evaluation” before construction, “If withdrawal of water from the pit and water supply wells will exceed a cumulative total of over 100,000 gallons of water per day when averaged over a consecutive 30-day period.” If Aquila plans to withdraw significant amounts of water for its mine, the DEQ should require the company to demonstrate it won’t harm local stream flows and ecology before granting a permit, not after.
  • Similarly, the department says that, if monitoring shows that water withdrawals for the mine might impact groundwater levels, Aquila “shall submit a plan to MDEQ to prevent that potential impact.” If groundwater impacts are sufficiently likely that the DEQ mentions it in the proposed permit, shouldn’t the company just go ahead and submit that plan before a permit is granted? We think so.

These are by no means isolated examples of the DEQ’s “wait and see” approach to the Back Forty. The department’s proposed permit contains the phrase “prior to construction” no fewer than six times in reference to designs, plans and techniques that are yet to be supplied. It includes the phrase “shall submit” in relation to non-existent plans or specific engineering designs at least five additional times.

Violation of statute

Early in May of this year, the DEQ sent a letter to Aquila with 196 questions or requests for additional information about a wide variety of data, plans and techniques. A month later, the company responded with a letter of its own, prepared by a consultant. Many of the answers—maybe most—were ambiguous at best. Yet, the DEQ seems satisfied with these halfhearted responses.

For example, the department requested—reasonably and clearly—that Aquila provide a cyanide management plan as part of its permit application. The company’s response? “A more detailed Cyanide Management Plan will be provided prior to construction.” Rather than demanding that plan be provided before approving the permit, the DEQ rolled over and said, basically: OK, just send it to us before you start mining. There are many other examples of this ridiculous, hands-off regulatory approach in the proposed permit.

Bottom line, our DEQ is proposing to grant the permit for a major open pit mine—one that would unearth and expose millions of tons of acid-generating material and place it in a giant open pit adjacent to a magnificent river—without requiring even basic, common-sense details about how, or if, the plans and techniques being proposed will work.

Rafting Menominee

The Menominee River is a popular rafting destination.

By our read, this is a clear violation of Michigan statute, which states that the mining, reclamation, and environmental protection plan for any proposed mining operation must include both “a description of materials, methods, and techniques that will be utilized,” and (with our emphasis added) “information that demonstrates that all methods, materials, and techniques proposed to be utilized are capable of accomplishing their stated objectives in protecting the environment and public health.”

This DEQ mining permit is one of several approvals Aquila will need before moving forward. The project also requires a state air permit, a wetland permit and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. But the mining permit is the heart and soul of the project—the only reason the company would need to seek the other approvals.

This is a major project with huge implications, not just for Michigan and our immediate neighbors in Wisconsin, but for the Great Lakes region overall. There are very few sulfide-based mines permitted in the region, so each new one that gets reviewed essentially sets a new precedent, a new standard. The least the DEQ can do is hold every project to the highest standards required in law, and to demand information adequate to really judge the project’s impacts on Michigan’s land, water, people and communities.

We hope the DEQ carefully reviews all the comments and decides to deny the permit. That would be a real Christmas gift to the people and amazing natural resources of our state. But given their track record with sulfide mining, we’re not optimistic.

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Top photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.
Menominee Tribe photo: Environmental Health News.
Juvenile sturgeon photo: USFWS via Flickr.
Rafting photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.

Gov. Snyder appoints MEC president Kolb to public health panel

Michigan Environmental Council President Chris Kolb was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last week to a 24-member Public Health Advisory Commission.

Kolb will represent nonprofit environmental and health organizations on the panel, which is charged with completing an assessment of Michigan’s public health delivery system at the state and local level. The commission will issue a final report to the governor by April 1, 2017.

“It is an honor to serve on this commission alongside a wide range of state officials, medical professionals, public health experts and others who share my commitment to making Michigan a safe, healthy place for all residents,” Kolb said. “I look forward to working together and finding ways to ensure that public health programs are coordinated and effective in serving our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Snyder also appointed Kolb in 2015 to co-chair the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which investigated the city’s drinking water crisis, found state-appointed emergency managers and the Department of Environmental Quality chiefly responsible and provided recommendations to prevent similar disasters statewide.

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Four overlooked issues for National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which aims to raise awareness to reduce childhood exposure to lead.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Michiganders may be more aware of the hazards of lead than ever before. Still, we’ve got a lot of work to do. In 2014, more than 5,000 children in Michigan had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the level at which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends public health action to protect children, but the CDC says there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The true number of lead-afflicted children in Michigan is likely much higher, since only 20 percent of children under six years old were tested in 2014.

We’ve written quite a lot here about lead poisoning in Michigan and our work to make it a thing of the past. You can find useful background here, here and here.

Since we’ve covered the basics in previous posts, we thought we’d mark this prevention week by highlighting some lead-related issues that don’t get much attention:

Don’t get tricked by toxic treats.

With Halloween coming up next week, it’s good to be aware of a largely overlooked source of lead exposure: imported candy. The Food and Drug Administration says children and pregnant women should not eat candy imported from Mexico, which may be contaminated by lead in wrappers or through improper manufacturing practices. Candy from China, the Philippines and other countries may also contain trace amounts of lead. The federal government reports that, in California, 15 percent of childhood lead poisoning cases can be traced to tainted candy.

We don’t want to needlessly stoke fears. Halloween is fun, and you’ve got enough to worry about it. Just stick to candy produced in the U.S.

We need more cleanup contractors. Read more

Former MEC staffer is driving force behind ambitious plan for regional transit in Southeast Michigan

Ben Stupka is tired. That’s no surprise—he and his wife, Laura, have a two-year-old son and a daughter born in August.

But there’s another reason Stupka yearns for a nap. When he isn’t changing diapers or reading bedtime stories, he has another baby to nurture.

As Planning and Financial Analysis Manager for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan, Stupka led the development of a master plan to finally provide coordinated, high-quality public transportation for Metro Detroit, which today is widely recognized as one of the most transit-poor major cities in the country. A ballot measure in November will ask voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties to fund the plan with a 1.2 mill property tax over 20 years.

Now Stupka—along with MEC and many partners in Southeast Michigan—is working to engage and educate the public about the benefits of rapid, reliable, regional transit.

Obvious need

That part is relatively easy, Stupka says, because the shortcomings of the current system are so clear.

Metro Detroiters spend $69 a year per capita to support public transportation. In Atlanta, it’s $119. Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul spend $177. Seattle: $471. “We have fundamentally underfunded transit in this region,” Stupka says. “The results of that are pretty obvious.”

Nearly three quarters of people who work in the City of Detroit live outside the city limits, yet direct bus service between downtown and the suburbs is available only for six hours on weekdays, and not at all on weekends. The lack of coordination between the region’s transit providers means some commuters have to change buses at county lines. Detroit and Ann Arbor are completely disconnected by transit. The list goes on.

Ben Stupka

Ben Stupka

“Anybody who’s been anywhere with a good transit system looks around and says, ‘It’s so strange that we don’t have this,’” Stupka says

Some residents say they won’t use the improved transit services, but Stupka sees a light bulb go on when he tells them to think about their aging parents who might not be able to drive much longer, or nurses working third shift at Beaumont Hospital without a car. Others start to pay attention when he notes that transit projects typically return $4 for every $1 invested. “And frankly, with some people it’s, ‘Wouldn’t you love to go to a Tigers game and have a couple beers and not worry about driving home?’” Read more

GM, Schupan partner to turn Flint water bottles into coats, car parts and more

Environmentalists have never liked plastic water bottles much, but they became indispensable for Flint families during the city’s water crisis.

Although the federal government declared in June that filtered Flint tap water was safe for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers to drink, the Detroit Free Press reported in July that, “More than two years after issues first surfaced with Flint’s drinking water, many residents have no plans to switch from the bottled water upon which they’ve come to depend for their daily needs and say they don’t trust filters.” At the height of the water crisis, a CNN reporter found that one Flint family of three used 151 bottles of water per day.

Now General Motors, Schupan Recycling and other partners are stepping in to make the best of a bad situation. GM announced in August it has collected more than 2 million water bottles from Flint and is feeding them into its Do Your Part program that turns empty plastic containers from five of the company’s Michigan facilities into useful products.

“Even though there’s a very, very challenging situation in Flint, there’s also an opportunity to make things better, put a smile on people’s faces and develop collaborative efforts in the community,” says John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction and a Flint native.

Schupan Recycling has trailers for collecting empty bottles at the State of Michigan’s central water distribution facility in Flint. The company sorts and bales the material at its Wixom facility. Clean Tech, in Dundee, washes the plastic and processes it into flakes.

Additional links in the supply chain convert those flakes into fleece, which is then used to make noise-reducing fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox engine, components for air filtration systems at GM body and painting plants, and insulation in specially designed coats for homeless people.

The water-resistant coats convert to a sleeping bag and can be worn as an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. Each coat’s insulation—cut to size by the Detroit-based workwear company Carhartt—contains plastic from 31 water bottles.

They’re a product of The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that not only provides warmth in winter for people without a roof over their head, but also trains homeless single parents to manufacture the coats, providing families with a stable income that helps them get back on their feet. Read more

MEC’s back-to-session list for lawmakers

The Legislature returned to Lansing last week after a summer recess. While there are just 18 House and 20 Senate session days remaining in 2016, our lawmakers have many opportunities this fall to make Michigan a cleaner, safer and more sustainable state.

Here are five of the top issues MEC’s staff will be focused on and key outcomes we’d like to see from the Capitol in the next few months.

1. Flint follow-up.

Doing everything possible to help the people of Flint and taking action to prevent anything like the city’s water crisis from happening elsewhere in Michigan must be top priorities and guiding principles for Michigan policymakers.

Bills in both the House and Senate would require testing of lead levels in water at schools around the state. It’s just one of many policies that must be part of a robust state response to the Flint crisis—and only part of the comprehensive approach needed to address all the ways in which our children are exposed to toxic lead—but lawmakers should unite behind this common-sense measure to demonstrate they are committed to protecting Michigan kids.

Another priority is toughening Michigan’s implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The rule sets minimum regulations for keeping lead out of drinking water, but it allows states to set their own, stricter rules. In April, Gov. Snyder proposed reforms that would make Michigan’s implementation of the rule the most stringent in the country. Following the Flint crisis, Michigan must set the national standard for safe drinking water. Legislators should approve the governor’s plan and make these reforms law before the end of the year.

2. Clean energy reforms.

Lawmakers let the clock wind down on 2015 without updating the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards that reached a plateau at the end of the year. Those are the clean energy laws that have driven $2.9 billion in economic development since 2008 and saved Michiganders more than $4 for every dollar invested in energy efficiency. They’ve trimmed coal’s slice of our energy-production pie from two-thirds to less than half.

Despite the unequivocal economic success of Michigan’s renewable power and energy efficiency programs, some elected officials have not only been slow to embrace those programs, but are still trying to gut themRead more

Gov. Snyder visits Michigan’s “Big Wild”

Our ears perked up when we learned recently that Gov. Rick Snyder and his family took a trip this summer to the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

For one thing, we’re always hungry for stories from the “Big Wild.” We wanted to hear about the governor’s adventures and find out if he saw any of the roughly 1,300 elk that live in and around the rugged, 106,000-acre forest.

The main reason we were so interested in the governor’s trip, though, is that MEC’s Brad Garmon serves on the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, the 18-member body that provides recommendations to the director of the Department of Natural Resources about management of the largest contiguous tract of public land in the Lower Peninsula. As we wrote in a newsletter story announcing Brad’s appointment, the advisory council “was created to uphold the Concept of Management the DNR adopted in 1973 after years of contentious litigation over oil and gas issues. The goal is to forever safeguard the forest’s wild character.”

When Brad heard about the visit through the advisory council, we contacted Gov. Snyder’s office to ask about highlights and to see if the governor thinks there’s potential for adopting the advisory council model to involve citizens in guiding the management of other special pieces of public land in Michigan.

Our thanks to Gov. Snyder and his staff for not only answering our questions, but for producing this video and sharing some photos from the trip!

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Guest post: Other hidden costs of Line 5

Editor’s note: The following guest post was written by Stanley “Skip” Pruss and originally ran on the blog of 5 Lakes Energy, where he is principal and co-founder. It is re-posted here with permission.

Pruss is also a member of the Board of Directors for FLOW (For Love of Water)—one of MEC’s many partners in the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign to prevent a catastrophic oil spill from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

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“You wouldn’t site, and you wouldn’t build and construct pipelines underneath the Straits today.”
—Attorney General Bill Schuette [Begging the question:  If a state-of-the-art, 21st Century pipeline presents an unacceptable risk, why is the continued use of an aging, mid-20th Century pipeline acceptable?]

Many compelling reasons exist to terminate the use of Line 5, the twin 20-inch pipelines carrying crude oil and natural gas liquids that cross the state-owned bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac.  Much research, analysis, and modelling has been done by scientists, engineers, lawyers and academics demonstrating that Line 5 poses an unreasonable risk.  Yet Line 5 continues in use, operating under the inherent illogic that a 63-year-old undersea pipeline can function indefinitely without incident.

To the many arguments compelling closure, let me offer another – one that is decidedly minor when compared to the potential catastrophic impacts of a Line 5 failure – but an argument that might manage to nudge your outrage quotient up a notch:

You and I are subsidizing Enbridge to maintain and operate Line 5.

But before addressing the many ways public resources are being expended to benefit Enbridge, let’s review some of the facts that should have already been determinative.

  • There exists an imminent risk of catastrophic harm to one-third of North America’s surface water that is Lakes Michigan and Huron (one lake).  UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute’s analysis indicates that more than 700 miles of shoreline in Lakes Michigan and Huron and proximate islands are potentially vulnerable to an oil release in the Straits that would result in accumulation requiring cleanup, and that more than 15% of Lake Michigan’s open water (3,528 square miles), and nearly 60% of Lake Huron’s open water (13,611 square miles) could be affected by visible oil from a spill in the Straits.
  • “Imminent risk” has two components – the likelihood of a failure and the potential magnitude of the harm.  The UM study and the National Wildlife Federation report Sunken Hazard have amply demonstrated the magnitude of potential harm through dispersion modelling.  The likelihood of failure cannot be regarded as zero as Enbridge’s own inspections have revealed corrosion in nine locations, 55 “circumferential” cracks, and loss of wall thickness in the pipeline itself.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard has acknowledged its limited capacity to launch an effective remedial response should a spill event occur in winter or with waves over 4-5 feet – a common occurrence in the Straits.
  • Enbridge pipelines have had 804 document spills through 2010 with at least five additional spills since 2012.

These facts illustrate a risk of substantial harm to Lakes Michigan and Huron – a globally unique freshwater resource – as well as to the coastal communities and the tens of millions of people connected to and served by these waters.

So let’s start there – who bears the risk?

First, Enbridge has transferred the risk of harm to people of the Great Lakes Region.  The risk of harm can be quantified, modeled and monetized.  Read more

MEC uses panel appointment to push for more recycling and composting, less landfilling

Michigan’s landfill-first approach to waste management is getting a much-needed overhaul, and MEC is helping to lead the charge.

For more than a year, Deputy Policy Director Sean Hammond has served on the state’s Solid Waste and Sustainability Advisory Panel, created by the Department of Environmental Quality to review part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, which regulates solid waste management. The SWSAP also includes the MEC member group Michigan Recycling Coalition, along with local governments, waste industry representatives and others. It is distinct from the Governor’s Recycling Council created a year earlier specifically to increase residential recycling rates.

The 13-member panel recently put forward its draft recommendations for input from Michigan residents. The Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comment on the proposal until Monday, August 1. (You can comment on the draft recommendations here.) After incorporating those comments, the SWSAP will present its formal recommendations to the DEQ director this fall, and the plan will eventually go before the Legislature for approval.

In our view, Michigan has been too reliant on landfills to manage our waste stream. That’s because the last time the state updated its solid waste policy, in the 1990s, there were concerns that we were running out of landfill capacity. As a result, Michigan built more landfills than we needed, which in turn created extraordinarily low costs for disposal. Today there are more than 45 landfills statewide.

As MLive reported recently,

In each landfill, there’s treasure getting buried. A new DEQ-funded university and business study found that Michigan garbage contains an estimated $368 million worth of recyclable material. The largest chunk, 13.6 percent, is food waste that could be converted to energy through composting or anaerobic digestion.

Michigan waste experts say as much as 40 percent of landfilled garbage is organic material that can’t necessarily be composted, but could be digested.

The study concluded 42 percent of thrown-away materials have market value, including all standard recyclable commodities except glass, plus textiles.

Through the SWSAP, we are working to capture more of that value and conserve resources by encouraging recycling, composting and electricity generation (via anaerobic digestion) so discarded materials can be put to their best, highest use.

Here are some highlights from the SWSAP’s recommendations for Michigan’s solid waste policy:

Rename it. The panel’s first draft recommendation is a change of terminology. Read more

Experienced fundraiser Joe Bower joins MEC as Director of Development

We are happy to announce that MEC has hired Joe Bower to expand our fundraising efforts as our new Director of Development. Joe’s efforts will be focused on expanding MEC revenues by strengthening our relations with individual and corporate donors.

Joe joins longtime staffer Andy Draheim to bolster our outreach to MEC’s supporters.

Joe has 14 years of development experience, the last 10 of which were spent with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, overseeing activities that included memberships, sponsorships, donor relations, grant-writing, annual appeals, and special events. During his time with the KIA, development revenues increased by nearly 80 percent.

Before moving into the development field, Joe worked as a reporter for two Michigan newspapers: The (Greenville) Daily News and The Herald-Palladium in St. Joseph. Later he was an editor and freelance writer for a number of regional and national magazines, authoring stories for Audubon, Sports Illustrated, and National Wildlife, among others.

“Joe is a great addition to our team and we’re excited to have someone with such impressive skills and experience focused on growing the community of generous financial supporters who make our work possible,” says Chris Kolb, MEC president. “He has a proven track record of raising funds to help nonprofits succeed, and I’m confident he will help MEC grow into an even stronger and more effective organization.”

Joe has a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

“I’ve appreciated and followed MEC’s activities for years,” he says. “Joining such a fine staff is like the perfect job for me because it lets me combine personal interests with professional skills.”

A native of Southwest Michigan, Joe has a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He grew up on a 240-acre farm with beef cattle, horses, chickens and other livestock in Mattawan. As a boy he didn’t always relish the daily chores that came with farm life—bailing hay, cleaning barns, chopping wood—but that lifestyle made a big impact.

“I really appreciate hard work,” Joe says, noting that he still visits his parents there to help with chopping wood, making maple syrup and other projects. “At the time, I didn’t necessarily like that. But I enjoy it now.”

He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Maria, and their children, Sam and Matilda.

His rural upbringing notwithstanding, Joe—who spent six years in San Francisco before moving back to Michigan 20 years ago—says he appreciates that MEC’s vision for Michigan encompasses everything from pristine wild places to thriving, sustainable downtowns. When it’s family vacation time, good food and vibrant urban areas are usually on the menu.

“Our idea of fun,” he says, “is exploring new cities and searching out great restaurants.”

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