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Interview with Alex Black, President and CEO of Gold Developer, Rio2 Ltd (TSXV: RIO)
We like Black’s honesty. The management team’s track record is good. They have made investors money. They have a problem with water but have a workaround. They had a large Feasibility Study plan, which has halved in size. Investors are concerned. We ask him why investors should trust him.
Rio2 is a Gold mine development company, focussed on taking its Fenix Gold Project in Chile to production, and its exploration platform in Peru. Rio2 used to be the talk of the town, but things have changed in the last couple of years. Since hitting CAD$2.85 at the end of March 2017, the share price has fallen to CAD$0.43 today. The market cap stands at c. CAD$78M. This decline will be more concerning given 2019’s strong gold performance. Why has Rio2 struggled? Black explains the primary driver behind Rio2’s fall from grace is the expectations of investors.
As a gold mine development company, Rio2 plans to methodically develop a fully-operational mine in the shortest possible timescale. While Rio2’s management team has an impressive track record of developing gold mines, demonstrating technical prowess and adding value, what are they doing today to get Rio2 out of this slump? Strangely, given the current gold bull market, Rio2 has decided to reduce the scale of the gold project laid out in a PFS conducted by a different company in 2014. Why reduce scale? Black acknowledges it might take some of the “sexiness” away from the opportunity Rio2 presents, but is adamant it is the right way to go.
An updated PFS was concluded in August 2019. The scale is down to get cash flowing. CAPEX has reduced from USD$400M to just over USD$100M. The strip ratio is lower and the IRR is slightly higher, but the AISC has increased, for now. This is a low-grade gold bulk tonnage operation, so surely scale is the most important element of this resource? Rio2 will seek to get the gold mine constructed as quickly as possible to create value, increase the production rate from an initial 100,000oz per annum to 200,000oz of gold per annum, and reward investors with returns.
Black is keen to explain how his team is different from any other junior: diverse with a variety of specialist roles. Black also touches on the environmental and political challenges of Chile as a gold mining jurisdiction, with a particular focus on the water licence/trucking situation. Is this interim solution effective? Black is attempting to concurrently apply for a permit while generating cash. This could mean investors won’t have to wait as long for value to be added.
He then explains why an EIA should be very straightforward for Rio2 to complete in the next few months. Rio2 can’t afford to hang around. Investors will want to see results soon. Rio2 has about US$13M in cash currently. They’ve already spent c. CA$40M on the project.
Rio2 is going to be telling its gold story to the markets. What is going to make them stand out? Long-term Rio2 is M&A a possibility? Rio2 will continue to pursue strategic acquisitions with the intention to build a ‘multi-asset, multi-jurisdiction, precious metals company focussed in the Americas.’
1:48 – Company Overview
2:41 – Share Price Decline: What Went Wrong?
4:11 – Background and Business Plan: What Did They Set Out to Build?
10:41 – Finding Value: Why, in a Gold Bull Market Situation, They Choose not to Expand? 19:57 – Jurisdiction: Water, Power and Political Challenges
27:07 – Money Spent on the Project to Date
28:27 – Raising the Share Price: How Will They do it and Why Should You Invest?
Company page: https://www.rio2.com/
Matthew Gordon: Thanks for joining us today. You are going to tell us about Rio2.
Alex Black: Rio2 is a mine building company. We are mine developers. We have built two mines in the last ten years here in Peru: La Arena and Shahuindo, when we were the old Rio Alto. And here we are again with a flagship project in Chile, which is very much a buildable proposition. It’s a large Gold deposit, and obviously, in this video you will learn more about it.
Matthew Gordon: You are after Gold. Let’s start with the big stuff. Share price: you have been absolutely hammered since 2017, for a long time, you were the darling. I remember people talking about you a lot. But since then, it has been on a downward slope. What’s gone wrong?
Alex Black: I think, once we became a mine development company, people’s expectations changed. I’ve had a lot of people ask me the same question and I’d say to people, ‘Look, if you are looking for the quick 10%, 15%, 20% increment in share price, because of drill holes or drill results or exploration results, that’s not us. We are actually in the process of getting a project ready to turn into a mine. This happened, to a certain extent, this happened to us back in 2009, when we started Rio Alto; it took a lot of time to get traction in the market, for people to understand and believe the story. And then, once we did, everything took off from there. Rio Alto started off as a USD$12M company when we acquired La Arena, and on the take out with Taho Resources, we were USD$1.2Bn. So we did create value, we can create value and will create value in this company.
Matthew Gordon: I have seen the track record, it is pretty impressive. Those are big numbers but that’s history. We’ve got to talk about today. What did you start off thinking you were going to build? What was the business plan Day 1?
Alex Black: What we did when we acquired this asset, it had a pre-feasibility study which was put together in 2014. Typical Junior company pre-feasibility study. Big project. Big CAPEX. Big NPV, everything big. Why? Because they were never going to build it. They were looking to flip it and it never happened. So we looked at the asset and we said, there’s some analogies here between what we have seen, both at La Arena and Shahuindo, which we both operated, built here in Peru. And we said, look, the way we started those two projects was to start small and incrementally build up, and we created a lot of value doing that.
So, going from a USD$400m CAPEX in the original pre-feasibility study done in 2014, to our CAPEX today which is about USD$110 – 115m is a big change, but it is completely doable now because of that gearing down of that particular project. So with La Arena and Shahuindo, we geared down right at the beginning. We had the opportunity to build some pretty reasonable sized projects, which they eventually got to, but we started small and we are going to do exactly the same.
Matthew Gordon: It was another management team that had done this PFS in 2014?
Alex Black: Yes. Let me give you a quick overview of the story: Atacama Pacific discovered this asset in 2010. It was a geological discovery. Albrecht Schneider and Karl Hansen, who were the two principals of Atacama Pacific, they drilled this thing out and low and behold -bang! They hit pay dirt and cobbled together a reasonable sized resource. And the problem they had, because they were exploration geologists, they just didn’t have the ability to then take it that step further. And that’s part of the issue with the market these days; there are a lot of the companies out there with some good geologists, but at some point, they need to step aside and let a mining development team come in and take the project forward, and the company forward, after they have done it because there are too many disasters of people who just don’t know what they are doing in this industry. So in our case, we identified this opportunity. We thought this was right down our alley, being a Gold Oxide heap leach project, and we acquired it and then convinced them that they should be doing a deal with us.
Matthew Gordon: So the previous exploration team came up with a very large Capex number to build a very large scale mine. You then came in and said let’s start smaller, and get some cash flowing, and then we can build it out from there. So this is more like a Phase 1?
Alex Black: Exactly. We try not to call it a starter project, but essentially it is; it is a starter view of the project. And I think that is what not has translated through to the market. The market has gone – ‘oh shit, you know, you’ve got 5m oz of Gold, but you are going to build this really tiny project. Why are you doing that? And so, once again, typically, a Junior company would drill this thing, keep drilling it. We’ve got 1.4m oz of inferred resources here that we could pull a drill rig up to tomorrow, start drilling and convert most of that to indicated. But why would we do that? We’ve already got 5m oz before we even get to that point. So, we are all about building mines and that will translate to value down the track.
Matthew Gordon: It’s one thing saying the market doesn’t understand, but the reality is that that is your fault; you haven’t explained it properly.
Alex Black: What I say to the market, we started off with a reasonable valuation when we did the Atacama transaction. We then ran into this bad market. We raised about USD$7M back in February 2019. We had to put money together because we had to advance the project so that was done very cheaply. What can you do? You have got to go with the market. The market says that you are worth USD$0.30 c, at the time, or whatever it was. And we took the money. And then later on, in August 2019, we did another financing. This time it was a USD$25M financing. That financing was led by Eric Sprott, and a whole bunch of people came into that financing with Eric. When I say a whole bunch of people, people that I don’t even know, they are mainly retail followers of him. So they are the people that don’t understand what they are getting into. They follow Eric and Eric typically gets into stories that are exploration stories, putting out drill holes and things like that. We are not one of those.
He bought us because he could see us as being a little bit different to those other stories that he has been into. So the crowd that follows him watches that and goes, where’s all the juice here? Where’s all the sexiness here? All the sexiness happened back when this thing was discovered, now we’re going to build it. As you probably know, in the lifecycle of a development company, this is the quiet time because here we go, leading ourselves into the construction phase of the project.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s go through some of the numbers: so you have taken the PFS and said ‘we are going to create a Feasibility Study, we are going to reduce the scale of this project, just to get things going’. So you have managed to lower things like the Capex down to, from whatever it is – down from $400M, strip ratio is lower; the IRR is slightly higher. The AISC has gone up. Because you haven’t got the scale there. This is a low grade, bulk tonnage operation.
Alex Black: Well, there are three peaks there. 1, 2 ,3. And basically, we’ll be mining all three of those. This is an extinct volcano. And you can see, hopefully you can see that photo clearly, but what I see here is terrain that is very accessible, and everything outcrops at surface so we are just knocking the tops of those hills off. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s very simple.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s answer the question the market is asking you, which is in a Gold bull market; prices are USD$1,500, your AISC is about $1,000, so there’s money to be made; surely you can go out and raise capital? You can put it back at the original PFS levels can’t you?
Alex Black: I think we can get the money to build this asset. The good thing is, we raised USD$25m in August. That money will last us all the way through, and we are going to make it last us all the way through to EIA approval. We are about to file our EIA in the next few weeks. And then we are anticipating approval about 12 months after that. Once we have got that, we will be in a position to look at raising a lot more money and obviously, taking a lot of the risk out of… any development project is getting the EIA.
Matthew Gordon: But the question was different; the question was, in a gold Bull market, USD$1,500 or so, you are making USD$500 per oz, you are still going with a smaller project – why?
Alex Black: Because we are a USD$70M valued company. If we were a USD$500M company, maybe we would go harder at this. But one of the key constraints we are dealing with here in Chile is water. Let me just clarify this because it is not as though there is a lack of water, there is plenty of water. We are right near to the Maricunga Salar. There is no mining going on in this district, right? There’s plenty of water rights in this district. The issue is: applying for water rights is one thing, but getting permanent water rights, which means you can pull water from the rights you have been given, is another thing. That’s the issue in Chile. That’s been generally created by a big demand for water, to the north of us in the Atacama Salar, which is way to the north of us. We have all the big guys: the Codelcos and the Rio Tintos and the BHPs with Escondida, Quebrada etc, etc. There has been a huge drain on water supplies in those areas. So the Government has gone, ‘whoa, let’s just slow down here’. But it is supply that is slowing down for the whole country, as far as water is concerned.
Matthew Gordon: That doesn’t answer the question: are you able to go and have conversations with institutions, funds or strategic partners, to give you more money to do the larger project, yes or no? Or are you telling me that because of the water constraints, people are not minded to fund you for the larger level project?
Alex Black: So, if we had the water rights, and we had permanent water rights for 80 litres per second, which would satisfy an 80 tonne per day mine, we would aim to try to build that. Once again, constrained by our balance sheet and the size of our company; we are a Junior company. So, what we have done is, we have elegantly, I think, we have looked at how we expedite the start up of this project without getting entwined in this water rights, water permitting issue, and that is to truck the water from Cupiapo to the project.
Now -140 kms. And we can do that. It raises our AISC to about USD$1,000 per oz, as you pointed out. That’s at the moment, I think we can show that we are working on bringing that AISC down as we get closer to and into production. But the idea is to bring enough water up. 20,000 tonnes a day requires about 2,000 tonnes of water. So it is about 10% of the mineral that you put on the pad, is required to be irrigated on the pads. So we need to bring up 2,000 tonnes a day of water from Cupiapo, and we can do that in trucks, in tankers. We have costed it out. It’s about USD$1.50 per tonne. That’s haulage costs, water costs, all in costs, to drive from Cupiapo to the project, 140 kms. Eminently doable. A lot of people go, ‘How do you do that/ Why are you bringing water up in trucks?’ It’s like any other consumable. We are going to bring fuel up in trucks, we are going to bring explosives up in trucks, we are going to bring everything up in trucks. There’s a major international road that goes from Cupiapo to Argentina, it’s between 15kms to 18 kms of the mine, of this peak. So the infrastructure is fantastic. So bringing up trucks is not an issue. And I want to say that because I’ve had a lot of people go, ‘The only push-back here is the water.’ And I have said, ‘Why?’ We have got a solution for water: 20,000 tonnes a day, 2,000 tonnes of water going to come up the road, every day, eminently doable. We have costed it, we have worked it out and it has been built up into our EIA. What is does do is speed up the EIA process because we are not pulling water up from the ground. So we are going to have an EIA approved, according to our consultants and according to all our officials that we have been talking to, the authorities, etc, we will have an EIA approved in about 12 months. And that’s running fast in Chile, right?
If you look at the latest EIA that was approved in Chile; it was for Salar es Norte: a big project that Goldfield was, I don’t know, 150 kms to the north of us. They got that approved in 18 months but that involved tailings deposition, permitted water; very complex project in comparison to what we had. So that is what it is all about. And you are right; Gold is USD$1,500. How long is it going to be USD$1,500? It could be more than USD$1,500, obviously. The idea is to get to production as quickly as possible. That is what will create value for us and enable us to increase production from our initial rate of maybe 100,000oz per annum to plus 200,000oz per annum.
Matthew Gordon: I agree. I understand the model. You have been very clear about what your model is. Get into production as early as possible to generate cash. You have got to get into economic production. I know water is the big issue that everyone wants to talk about – let’s just cover it and move on. So you are trucking water up the mountain, I don’t know how many trucks that is and how many times a day?
Alex Black: I’ll tell you right away: very quickly – 25 trucks going up three times a day. So it is 75, essentially 75 trucks. We are going to have 25 trucks physically in the fleet that will be contracted out. And that means a truck, leaving Cupiapo, essentially, every 20 minutes.
Matthew Gordon: As an investor, all I’m concerned about is what does that add to the bottom line? You have said it has. I’m more concerned and institutions will be concerned with this interim, this temporary solution is over strikes, or the towns and villages that you go through not liking 75 trucks going through each day, every day.
Alex Black: So we will be bringing the trucks up to the project and depositing the water, we are not going to be building a separate reservoir, we will be depositing the water in a major events pond. The major events pond is secondary to your leach pond that accumulates the pregnated cyanide that you are going to put through the plant. The major events pond will have the capacity of about 2 weeks of water, right. So we will make sure that before we start this project, we will fill this major events pond up and we will keep it filled up which means that we therefore have about 2-weeks of water. So if there is a weather event. Whether there is a labour event, or something like that, we believe that will be a way of mitigating those events.
Matthew Gordon: Well, 2 weeks of events. Sometimes these things can go on; whether it is natural events or people protesting or otherwise. And let’s face it, that happens in that part of the world a lot. So I appreciate that.
Alex Black: Good point but however, but during the latest event that happened in Chile, mining was not stopped anywhere in the country. And the road between Copiapo and where we are was never barricaded or anything like that, for any reason.
Matthew Gordon: Will you be applying for the full-permitted water license while this is going on?
Alex Black: What we have guided is, we are looking at the longer-term water options, and there’s plenty of them. There are people building desalination projects.
At Copiapo and the coast.They are looking for clients. They are looking for end-users. The off-take we have with the water retreatment facility in Copiapo, owned by Aguas Chanar, we have the right to access up to 80 litres a second, which is for the bigger project, we are pulling 20 litres a second initially and putting them into trucks. We could build a pipeline from Aguas Chanar to the project, that’s still a possibility, we may do that in consortium with other people doing business in the area. Codelco have just mentioned that they are going to apply for exploration rights over the Maracunga Salar for Lithium. There’s going to be quite a lot of activity in that area. Having Codelco, the biggest mining company in the country, as our neighbour is going to be a good thing, I believe. So there are options that are in the background, that we are working on and as we bring this thing into production, we will be able to say, we are in production now and in year 2, we are going to tap into this water X, whatever it is and we are going to increase production accordingly.. So that is how we see these things playing out, but I just don’t have those solutions –
Matthew Gordon: Today.
Alex Black: Right.
Matthew Gordon: Okay. So at that point, you are going to have to apply for an EIA permit, presumably?
Alex Black: Well, you do a modification.
And that’s the good thing about it; the modification of the EIAs take 6 to 8 months, typically. We have done quite a lot of research on this. Once you have got your first EIA, then it becomes a much easier process o modify and do things. The good thing here is, and this is what investors need to understand: this is 100% Gold Oxide leap leach. There is no tailings, there is no complex sulphide transition zone, etc. This is going to be Gold Oxide heap leach. Which means no tailings dam. It’s only ever going to be a leach pad. So all the modifications we do to the EIA, will be relatively simple compared to this transitioning into a major sulphide project or a complex project with Copper and other things. There’s no Copper here. This is an anomaly in the Maracunga region: this is an anomaly because all the other Gold deposits in the Maracunga are associated with Copper, complex metallurgy, huge CAPEXand complexity.
Matthew Gordon: How are you getting power to site? Using diesel, or have you got another solution?
Alex Black: There’s a powerline within 15kms of this project. But instead of tying ourselves to the powerline, going through the negotiations, including that in the EIA, which would delay start up of this project, we said to ourselves, I’m going to start this with Gensan, which we did with La Arena, which we did with Shahuimindo, here in Peru. Once you tie yourselves into the grid, maybe in year 1 or 2 of production, Gensan then becomes back up power. So, we are going to start with Gensan and bring diesel up and power it that way. But there is a powerline 18 kms away.
Matthew Gordon: And how does this work? I’ve looked at similar projects elsewhere in the world, the people controlling the water, the people controlling the energy. They put their prices up at their discretion and that has a big impact on your costs. So what is it like in-country with regards to power, water, etc?
Alex Black: Well, in the case of water, we have got a fixed cost on water so there is no inflation built into the cost of the water we are pulling. We are actually using retreated sewage. Which is good from a leaching perspective, probably from other allergical perspectives it may not be, but for leaching it is okay, so we have got a fixed price. Energy: Energy used to be a huge problem in Chile years ago and now it has stabilised and there is much more power on the grid. But typically, if oil prices go up, Gold prices move and other things – these are things we have to watch and build into our models as we go forward.
Matthew Gordon: How much money have you pumped into this project so far? You have talked to me about USD$7m and USD$25m, so far in cash, but how much did you pay?
Alex Black: Oh, we just did a share transaction; so we did a business combination with Atacama Pacific. We paid a premium – they were lucky because these days, nobody pays a premium. It was all paper. We have raised in total so far, I’m just trying to do the maths, about CAN$40m, from the time we started Rio2, and here we are.
Matthew Gordon: How much cash are you sitting on today?
Alex Black: Today, about USD$13m.
Matthew Gordon: So you have spent about USD$40m, your market cap is about USD$75m – ish. You have about USD$13m in the bank.
Alex Black: And we are mixing currencies here. Let’s say it is CAN$15m or CAN$16m, sitting in the bank
Matthew Gordon: Sitting in the bank. Okay. So what’s going to happen this year that’s going to change the direction the share price is going in? Are you going to spend that on talking to the market more? What are you going to deliver?
Alex Black: Two things: we are going to be telling the story a lot more. We have just come out of the Christmas/New Year period. We came out with our updated PFS in August/September. We did two shows in Colorado. We went to New York last year. We are going to be going to Zurich this year, to the Denver forum in Zurich in April. We are going to be doing London, Frankfurt – you know, we are going to be marketing, telling people the same story I am telling you right now. So that’s one thing we will be doing. From a news perspective, we will be filing the EIA towards the end of the quarter. That’s a major milestone. We are also in the process of completing all our basic engineering for the project and that will be able to reveal how that looks, what tweaks we have done to the look of the project and traded off on OPEX, CAPEX to get to that point. We will start to talk to financiers about the project, once we get the compete overview of the project that is filed in the EIA, to present to financiers. We will be doing that.
We also are refining our agreement with Aguas Chanar, which will be to our benefit and we will be announcing that at some point. We are also looking at the future of tying into the grid. We will be announcing things about that. That won’t be for the start-up of the project, but the longer-term future. And we will talk about the impacts to OPEX and future sustaining Capex that we will need to do those various things.
Matthew Gordon: That just sounds like every other story we are hearing every other week. I am trying to work out, what do I need to hear that says, this guy knows where this thing is going, alright? We look at people like Equinox right? They cleverly brough together three quite ordinary projects and did something quite big. You are in a district-wide, you have got Kinross behind you, who aren’t doing too much at the moment, and you are surrounded by some other big names. And you have got Eric Sprott involved in this thing, so why aren’t you offering up a bigger vision?
Alex Black: We have been talking about a bigger vision, and the bigger vision is to consolidate ourselves with other companies. We’ve got a management team that is second to none.
Matthew Gordon: You certainly have. So let’s do something with it.
Alex Black: And let me tell you, for the last three years, apart from doing this acquisition, for the last three years, we have been looking at lots of things. We are completely different to other Junior companies. We’ve got a full team here: geologists, financial people, mining people, environmental people, social people. We can walk into a mine tomorrow and run it, anywhere, anywhere. And the other thing we come with is our Capital Markets experience, because I’ve been doing this for the last 20 years or so, front-end of companies, so we’ve got all the ingredients. But you think, there are people out there that, us plus them, that would look interesting, like what Equinox has done with Leagold, etc, let me tell you, it is just so difficult. So difficult. And there is entrenched management. Lack of management in various companies, skimming the game like we have. But you try and convince them that putting them together with is would make a lot of sense for the future of the company and also for shareholders, and it is like you might as well be talking to a rock.
Matthew Gordon: You’ve got Eric Sprott who is a big player. What does someone like him see in you? Is there something we need to know?
Alex Black: We continue to try to find deals. We may come up with something in the next short little while and everyone goes, wow, you’ve made the right move. All I’m saying is that until now, it has been difficult. With Eric, he is backing our management team, he has invested in a lot of things. At some point, those things have to perform. My reckoning is that they are either going to perform or he will potentially be a catalyst for consolidation, right? You can have X number of investments but if they don’t form, it’s like, well why don’t I reduce the size of that pool to buy a factor of 2 or 3 and put things that have synergies or focusses that could be combined, and maybe that’s what he’s going to do. He hasn’t really said anything about that but I’m hoping he does that because at the end of the day, that’s what this business needs: consolidation.
You know what interests me as well? You know, here we are, we have been trying very hard to look at consolidation. Do you think anyone has come to me to say, why don’t you consolidate with us? Not one person has done that. That shows you the state of this business.
Matthew Gordon: At some point, as you say, it makes sense that he has got to pull the trigger because there are a lot of fundamentally good assets, there is some very average management and then there is some exceptional management. I think your track record speaks for itself. What I’m hearing is: get into production early, earlier than you originally planned, and get some cash flowing.
Alex Black: Get into production that anyone else would do with this project. If this was in the hands of Kinross, they wouldn’t be doing what we are doing, right? If this was in the hands of anybody bigger, they wouldn’t be doing what we are doing. They would be looking at what impact can we make to 200,000+ oz per year, etc. So, we are doing something that nobody else would do with this particular project. But we did the same, and you’ve got to go back, and I keep harping and mentioning La Arena and Shahuindo, we did that there. We started those projects very small: La Arena was 10,000 tonnes a day to start with, focussed on high-grade, outcropping materials, which is exactly what we have here. And so, you know, we have that skillset to be able to do it and to have the vision of what it can become. What the market will eventually do, and this happened with Rio Alto, their market will eventually gel with that and go, yes, I want to be in this story.
The problem is that we are not in production yet. The closer we get to production, the more the interest and value will come into the story because everybody will doubt that we can do this, irrespective of the fact we have done it twice before, that’s just the nature of the market. People go, ‘Oh, can you do this? You have never built a mine in Chile, have you?’ Etc, etc. It’s one of those things and I’m very pragmatic. I’ve been in the business 40 years. I’ve been at the front end of the business for 20 years. I’m a technical guy, I’m a mining engineer. All I do, I’ve got a great team of people behind this wall here. Great team of people: second to none here in Latin America. All I do is just focus on what we’ve got to do, let’s just show people that what we’ve been telling people for the last piece of time, we actually deliver on, and that’s all we can do – is deliver and execute on what we say.
Matthew Gordon: We shall see. Alex, thanks for telling us the story today.
Matthew Gordon: Alex, I appreciate your time, telling that story. It was great to get you to articulate what the plan is and why you’ve been doing it in this order. I can understand that now. I think you have got to get out there and tell the story in an articulate way to the market place, because your share price says; no one understands it. Eric Sprott coming on board – great new addition. I’ll look forward to seeing how your relationship with him develops.
Alex Black: Alright. And I just want to say that I like the way you ask questions; the tenor of the questions that you ask are really good. I think it really suits people who are maybe not so knowledgeable about mining, so you are doing a great job. Keep doing it. I look forward to following up.
Matthew Gordon: Thanks, Alex.
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