Life Inside America’s Oil Boom

Yves here. Be warned, this isn’t standard Naked Capitalism fare. It’s a bit of “road trip meets oil boom subculture.” But while there has been a lot of reporting on what is happening in communities where fracking is underway, there has been comparatively little on-the-ground-coverage of what is arguably the bigger story, the development of the Bakken oil field.

By Laura Gottesdiener, a freelance journalist and author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica Playboy,, and frequently at TomDispatch. She is currently working with Zuccotti Park Press on a book about climate change and displacement. Originally published at TomDispatch

At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint. Then again, I didn’t really expect most of the things I encountered reporting on the oil boom in western North Dakota this past summer.

“Can you cover the floor?” the other waitress yelled around 11 p.m. as she and her crop-top sweater sidled behind the bar to take over for the bouncers and bartenders. They had rushed outside to deal with a commotion. I resolved to shuttle Miller Lites and Fireball shots with extra vigor. I didn’t know who was fighting, but assumed it involved my least favorite customers of the night: two young brothers who had been jumping up and down in front of the stage, their hands cupping their crotches the way white boys, whose role models are Eminem, often do when they drink too much. One sported a buzz cut, the other had hair like soft lamb’s wool.

The rest of the night was a blur of beer bottles and customer commands to smile more. It was only later, after the clientele was herded out to Red Peters’s catchy “The Closing Song” — “get the fuck out of here, finish up that beer” — and the dancers had emerged from the dressing room in sweatshirts, that I realized everyone was on edge.

“What’s wrong?” I asked the scraggly bearded bouncer walking me to my dusty sedan, whose backseat would soon double as my motel room.

“The kid’s going to die,” he replied. Turned out one of the brothers had gotten his head bashed in by a man wielding a metal pipe. He’d been airlifted to the nearby city of Minot where he would pass away a few days later.

Catalysts for Instability

I hadn’t driven nearly 2,000 miles from Brooklyn to work as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. (That only happened after I ran out of money.) I had set off with the intention of reporting on the domestic oil boom that was reshaping North Dakota’s prairie towns as well as the balance of both global power and the earth’s atmosphere.

This spring, production in North Dakota surged past one million barrels of oil a day. The source of this liquid gold, as it is locally known, is the Bakken Shale: a layered, energy-rich rock formation that stretches across western North Dakota, the corner of Montana, and into Canada. It had been considered inaccessible until breakthroughs in drilling and hydraulic fracturing made the extraction of oil from it economically feasible. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced that the Bakken Shale contained 25 times more recoverable oil than previously thought, sparking the biggest oil rush in state history.

Now, six years later, the region displays all the classic contemporary markers of hell: toxic flames that burn around the clock; ink-black smoke billowing from 18-wheelers; intermittent explosions caused by lightning striking the super-conductive wastewater tanks that hydraulic fracturing makes a necessity; a massive Walmart; an abundance of meth, crack, and liquor; freezing winters; rents higher than Manhattan; and far, far too many men. To oil companies, however, the field is hallowed ground, one of the few in history to break the million-barrel-a-day benchmark, earning it “a place in the small pantheon of truly elite oil fields,” as one Reuters market analyst wrote.

This summer, driven partially by North Dakota’s boom, the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia in total oil and gas production, making the nation not only the number one consumer of fossil fuels but also the number one producer. (China is currently leading when it comes to annual carbon emissions, although this country still has higher emissions per capita.) Around the same time, the Pentagon issued a warning that climate change, caused by unchecked fossil-fuel extraction, “will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” A subsequent report issued by the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, a government-funded military research organization, went even further, stating that the effects of climate change — food insecurity and massive forced displacement, just to name two — “will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict.”

And so, when I arrived in Williston this summer, easing my sedan past the fiery flare offs and the welcome sign exclaiming “Boomtown U.S.A.!,” my plan was to report on some of the less discussed aspects of the domestic energy revival, such as farmland pollution and the oil industry’s increasing militarization. But I had also come to Williston just to be, to explore the existential question of what it’s like to live amid a frenzy of activities that, as scientists have assured us, are likely to threaten the very existence humanity has known for the last few thousand years.

Truths and Lies

On my first night in town, I landed in the unfinished, wood-walled cabin of a local bartender and his friend, a flat-faced, 230-pound hulk of a man who worked on an oil rig and reminded me of Fred Flintstone. As we prepared pork chops stewed in Campbell’s mushroom soup and sipped cherry-flavored Southern Comfort, the two traded stories about Williston — the kind, they said, that don’t make the newspapers.

There was the time a man threatened to kill the bartender, and when the cops arrived, they let him go, arguing, “Well, he’s driving a company truck…” Plenty of companies here issue their employees trucks, although by far the most common branded vehicles in Williston are white Ford Super Duty pick-ups with “Halliburton” stenciled on the front passenger door.

They recycled rumors about secret fights in rooms with padded walls and padded doors, where a winner can walk away with $50,000 to $60,000 in cash, and home poker games with buy-ins of more than $1,000. I quickly began learning the challenge of reporting from the oilfields: rumors are rampant — there is not, for example, a cache of weapons and explosives stashed in a bunker behind Scenic Sports and Liquor, despite claims that it’s so — yet the most insane-sounding things have actually happened.

To mention just three that turned out to be all too true: during the winter, a long-time resident rented out an ice house for $5 a night to newly arrived workers struggling to find lodging; members of the Black Hawk private security company (no relation to the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater, although the founder enjoys the “intimidation factor” caused by the confusion) once set its men, armed with M-4 assault rifles, to guard 30,000 pounds of fracking-related explosives in the middle of the badlands; oil companies here have burned billions of dollars worth of natural gas straight into the atmosphere because it was less hassle than building pipelines to transport it.

Whether or not any of the stories those two men told that night were accurate, I was struck by their generosity and the kindness of others. That first day alone, I’d been lent a shirt by a woman working at the front desk of the Aspen Lodge & Suites, offered ideas for stories, and fed a home-cooked meal. Perhaps the deep social ties and steadfast humility of pre-boom North Dakota continued to permeate oilfield culture, as one lifelong resident optimistically suggested. Then again, sometimes generosity can shade over into other things entirely. That bartender, for example, would later try to lure me into the underground sex industry by promising no-participation-required journalistic access. I only had to pass one test, which involved being on my knees.

“I wish you could have followed through so i could of helped your story…” he texted me after I walked out.


The next time I saw Fred Flintstone, he was tired of his haphazard schedule with Key Energy, an oilfield service company, so we spent the afternoon cruising in his Ford Mercury, visiting the offices of its competitors as he looked for a new job. He wore baby blue surfboard shorts and his lower lip was embroidered with a line of black stitches from a recent bar brawl. He was a lover, not a fighter, he assured me, although he also mentioned that the other guy had a broken jaw and a few staples in his head.

According to residents and oilfield workers, including Fred, there are only two things to do in Williston: work and drink. The reasons are simple enough. Unlike in significant parts of the country, well-paying jobs are easy to acquire in the oil fields. As a result, North Dakota boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, an eye-popping 2.8%. To access these jobs, however, the majority of workers had to leave their families and relocate to this remote region, where you often end up living in company-provided housing in steel shipping containers and the number of men vastly, sometimes dangerously, exceeds that of women. Many of these men, in turn, experience feelings of loneliness and alienation, which is where the drinking comes in.

Fred was so confident he’d have a new employer by the end of the week that he suspended the day’s job-hunting when the remotest possibility of picking up a woman arose. (“I know this is crazy,” he asked the secretary at Nabors, a drilling contractor, “but are you all married up?… No?… Well, when do you get off?”)  Soon enough, we parked at R. Rooster BBQ Co. to down some pulled pork, then stopped to check out a ’98 Honda Accord. He swore that he’s bought and sold 68 cars over the years.  To end our day, for reasons that passed me by, we stopped and checked out a butcher’s shop.

To my surprise, as we drove, he explained that he wasn’t a big fan of the whole oil extraction thing; he’d spent much time watching the National Geographic Channel and was concerned about the deforestation of the rainforest and the warming of the atmosphere. “When they say polar bears could be extinct in the next few years, you’re obviously doing something very, very wrong.”

He wasn’t the first oilfield worker I’d met who wondered just what he was involved in and exhibited concern about climate change. Many proved surprisingly aware of the way that flaring off the natural gas that surges out of the drilled wells contributes to global warming or how spilled wastewater from the hydro-fracking process can sterilize land. I’d even met one former river guide turned oilfield worker who texted me an entire Terry Tempest Williams poem upon my departure.

Despite such genuine concerns, most agreed with Fred’s assessment: “I, one man alone… I can’t do a fucking thing about it. So I’ll just get rich and I’ll move away, find my acreage back in Iowa or Nebraska or Kansas or whatever, and live my life accordingly.”

When I ran into him again about a week later at Williston’s recently opened $70 million recreation center, sure enough, he had a new gig.

Of course, there are a slew of sites in the United States where residents are mounting serious resistance to fossil fuel extraction. To name just three: in P.R. Springs, Utah, land defenders are attempting to stop the construction of the nation’s first commercial tar sands mine; on a reservation on the Black Mesa plateau in Arizona, the Diné (often called Navajo, the name imposed by Spanish conquistadors) are fighting to permanently shut down a coal mine; in Nebraska, indigenous leaders and local ranchers have joined forces to try to block the final leg of the Keystone XL pipeline slated to bring carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But Williston is not one of those places.

Lost in the Wild West

It’s hard to know whether Williston, for all its technological prowess in extracting fossil fuels from the earth, is a window into the nation’s future — or a last gasp from its past. Certainly, the sharply divergent opinions of what to make of the oil boom catch something of the country’s increasing polarization over what the coming years ought to hold. On one side, supporters of the boom see a domestic energy revival as exactly what America needs: more places where anyone who wants a job can work, where technological superiority carries the day, and where riches (never mind whose) are there for the taking — especially if you are a man, or white, or both. On the other side, opponents of the oil frenzy consider it the latest methane-gas-flaring incarnation of the worst American traditions: unbridled greed, resource plunder, and violent machismo. The latter is becoming an increasing problem as non-native oilfield workers flock to the local reservations of the Three Affiliated Tribes, where they are immune from prosecution by tribal governments. As one told the Atlantic, “You can do anything short of killing somebody.”

In Williston, a single term catches both views: workers here overwhelming call this place “the Wild West.”

Just beneath the sense of giddiness and possibility in this frontier outpost of America’s new energy empire lurks loneliness of an almost indescribable sort. Since the boom began, at least 15,000 workers — mostly men — have descended on Williston alone. When you meet them, it’s clear that most carry the residue of half-lives from someplace else: photographs of their children, memories of ex-wives, accents bred in Minnesota or Liberia. “You can almost see the lost-ness, the desperation in their faces,” Marc Laurent told me. He’s the manager of the Aspen Lodge & Suites where I first stayed, before the cost of housing got the best of me and, like almost all newcomers to Williston at one point or another, I resigned myself to living in my car.

Buck was one of Laurent’s guests and exactly the type of man he was describing. A house framer, I first met him wandering around the Aspen’s dirt courtyard looking hangover-haggard. He had once had a wife — “back home” — but it didn’t work out.

Within minutes of meeting, he invited me out to lunch — and then to be his roommate. Just to save money, he clarified. (I declined the offer.) We spoke on the unfurnished wooden walkway that connected a series of row-house motel rooms that had arrived pre-assembled on a tractor-trailer less than six months before. He explained that he’d been here about eight months, mostly framing the single-family houses that companies were putting up as fast as possible.

A jowly man of sagging posture, Buck said, “I’m just trying to rebuild myself.” His words conjured up for me an image of him attempting to frame himself, measuring the length of his arms, the angle of his shoulders until, finally, he hammered himself back into shape. There was something desperate about the way he and others like him had come here. So many, after all, flocked to this town because they needed the work, because their local economies had collapsed in 2008 and had never really come back. They weren’t, however, looking to pour themselves a new foundation in Williston. Instead, as so many reassured me, after a few years, after the money was made, they would leave.

A sense of rootlessness gripped me as the weeks stretched on. Sometimes what I was learning left me feeling dizzy — like the commonplace estimates I heard that the Bakken boom could easily last another 20 years. Or that energy companies were now developing plans for deepwater fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Or that the county of Tulare, California, had run out of tap water in that state’s never-ending mega-drought. But most of time I just felt numb. When one of the bouncers at the strip joint where I worked later told me that the dead boy’s head had cracked open “like a cantaloupe,” I found myself not caring all that much because he hadn’t left me a tip.

“I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll just stay in North Dakota for a while,” I told my best friend’s answering machine before walking into a waitressing shift about a month into my trip. I was making good money at Whispers. I had made at least a few friends I knew were not pimps and I’d gotten the hang of living out of my car. I spoke to my parents less and less frequently and my memories of the East Coast seemed to be fading. I had, it seemed, become part of oil country — and it was becoming part of me.

My friend, however, was not impressed.  “No, don’t do that,” he said on the phone the next day. “You need to come home.”

So, about a week later, I stuffed my glove compartment with my Staples spiral notebooks and headed east, past orange flares licking the black night, past the tangled-metal refineries of Indiana and Ohio, past fracking-well pumps pecking at the fields of Pennsylvania, burning gasoline the whole way, the memory of Williston never quite receding.

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  1. Doug

    CME rule 575, prohibiting disruptive practices and manipulative behavior, kicked in on 9/15. No more “spoofing”, quote stuffing” or “disorderly execution of transactions during the closing period”.

  2. Clive

    Wow. It’s pieces like this that really should win Pulitzer prizes.

    Only comment I can make on such a superbly complete description is I too felt just a little bit numb after reading it. And I didn’t live it for weeks on end. When the author writes about how “When one of the bouncers at the strip joint where I worked later told me that the dead boy’s head had cracked open “like a cantaloupe,” I found myself not caring all that much because he hadn’t left me a tip” this shows that, unfortunately, numbness is catching. When you’re surrounded by stuff like that, all the time, you have to shut down any caring, it’s like a self defence mechanism. Otherwise, you can’t survive it.

    If this is what jawbs and groaf is all about, what, exactly, has the past 300 years of industrial society been in aid of ? Of course, situations like this one were fairly common place a hundred years ago (I can visit museums about the industrial mining, steel and cotton mill towns here in England which doesn’t seem much different). But that’s the point. It should have stayed confined to a museum, not re-created with added crystal meth.

    1. Carla

      Is it not clear that the “past 300 years of industrial society” have been in aid of the 1 percent? Nothing more, nothing less.

  3. abynormal

    From Baghdad to the Bakken
    By Laura Gottesdiener
    October 1, 2014
    And then there are less visible challenges: the isolation from family and friends; cramped living quarters in steel shipping containers called “man camps”; the profound loneliness and lack of intimacy in a company town dominated by men. The latter, in turn, has spilled over into violence against women. Nearby reservations have witnessed a sharp rise in sexual assaults, rapes, and human trafficking, overwhelmingly perpetrated by non-native oilfield workers—one of the reasons that many indigenous people and climate-justice activists view the extraction frenzy as a form of warfare.

    Military training helps many thrive, or at least survive, in this environment—a reality that both employers and the armed forces recognize. ShaleNET, a Department of Labor-funded platform that helps place people in oilfield jobs, provides military occupational classifications alongside all of its career listings. “The skills developed during their time in the military frequently translates into these hands-on careers,” the 2013 ShaleNET career guide explains. Advisors for the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP), which is meant to help soldiers transition back to civilian life, also recommend that ex-military people head to Bakken. Arkansas native Joshua Lumbley, who now works as a roustabout outside Williston, recalled discharging from the Army in 2013: “You have to do your ACAP, it’s like green to civilian, they call it,” he said. “And every teacher that came in for that said, ‘If you want a job, go to North Dakota.’”

    As the Iraq War wound down in the second half of the decade, the defense industry began to search for “adjacent markets.”

  4. bob goodwin

    This writing is very good. I wanted to be there and soak it all in. Boom towns are simultaneously so ugly and so compelling.

    1. abynormal

      as a female, i worked over 7yrs highway construction…400+males 1:75 female/males.
      what she went thru to get that story…inverted my ballz

      1. ambrit

        I remember a woman Plumbing Inspector who also ran a small plumbing company “hands on” back in Louisiana. She once remarked to me, “You know, whenever any of these Bozos makes a crack about Bull Dyke Inspectors, I whip out pictures of my kids and show them around. They either shut up real fast or they’re a lost cause. Stupid too. Who in their right mind would mess with the Inspector?”
        One sentence jumped out at me. The one that said, “…local reservations of the Three Affiliated Tribes, where they are immune from prosecution by tribal governments.” Immune from prosecution??!! Wasn’t this what America did in Iraq during the Occupation? Isn’t the reversal of that policy by the Iraqis one of the main reasons America isn’t there today? Extraterritoriality is the word I’m groping for. Something Colonial Powers shoved down the throats of weaker peoples when they could. All to facilitate “trade,” just like today. Who says History doesn’t repeat itself.

  5. Working Class Nero

    Every few months, there is another NYT hit piece on the oil boom in North Dakota and this well-written article certainly follows the main narrative thread: white working class men making way too much money is a really BAD thing. It is almost as if the well-educated white New Yorkers who write these articles cannot stand the fact that men who never even thought about going to college, and who therefore have no student loans to pay back, are making much more money than many of the Ivy League young cultural elitists slangin’ Lattes back in NY .

    Now sure the fracking boom is not good for the environment and contributes to global warming. But why should white working class men sacrifice good jobs when their progressive elite betters refuse to stop the immigration flood that is not only destroying working class wages but also adding huge amounts of green house gasses by taking low consuming third worlders and converting them into relatively high consuming first worlders?

    For example a constant meme is that there is this huge crime wave associated with the oil boom. As proof we get the excruciating details of ONE murder. This reminds me of a critique Noam Chomsky made years ago concerning the way violence is covered in the communist Eastern Bloc vs. authoritarian Central America. On the one hand, in the case of communist violence, we were treated with up-close and emotional details. When nuns were massacred in El Salvador on the other hand, the reports are neutral and from a certain emotional distance.

    While crime has certainly gone up in North Dakota, it is still way under any US averages. For example in stories about Midwestern towns being “revitalized by Central America immigrants” the standard elite NY approach would be that it is racist to discuss the associated increase in crime. And while we are at it, why not compare these supposedly horrible crime rates in North Dakota with those of most American inner cities?

    But white working class males have been for some time the official “out-group” for which no tolerance is possible and no political correctness protection is allowed. Even supposedly left leaning publications barely hide their contempt for these uneducated pasty miscreants getting so well paid. Who needs the Chamber of Commerce when you have the Lefties themselves being so angry about high wages? Nowhere is there a discussion about how the scarcity of labor means higher wages and that maybe the inverse is true; by flooding other markets with cheap immigrant labor, wages go down.

    All in all though, to be fair, although this article did certainly follow the boilerplate elite narrative (after all, the author probably does want work when she gets back to New York), there was an ever-so-slightly subversive hint of sympathy for her fellow human beings that she came into contact with in North Dakota. It might slip past this time but the author should be careful about that in the future. The rule is: there will be no tolerance for out-groups and white working class males, especially well-paid ones, are the out-group.

      1. abynormal

        deep breath Aby and Never try to teach a pig to sing.
        It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.Twain

    1. McMike

      Some of the white guys do behave very badly, while they are essentially uninvited temporary guests. Should they be excluded from scrutiny because they are white?

      The fact of oil booms is that it descends on rural communities very much like an invading military force, entirely disrupts the economy, community, structures, environment, and way of life. And huge sectors of the community or economy and swept away (mom and pop businesses, affordable housing, quiet/low key ways of life and business are steamrolled or driven out), crime goes up, traffic goes through the roof, public services and infrastructure fall behind, costs go up, and the area becomes heavily industrialized, with former bucolic rural communities now host to fleets of trucks, toxic processing and storage, 24/7 lighting and noise, plumes of smoke and dust, accidents, man camps, and their entertainment to support an occupying force of thousands of men. The communities themselves have very little say in it, because that amount of money (and its state and federal subsidies and preference) will not take “no” for an answer.

      Yes, it brings a lot of money. Boom money. Which does not come free. It comes at a steep cost in disrupted economy, community, and way of life.

      And the boom of course eventually leaves. Hitting the host community with the double whammy of now being unable to sustain itself, having re-ordered and overextended to meet the boom.

      1. hunkerdown

        Yes, they should be excluded from (scrutiny because they’re white), which is different from (they should be excluded from scrutiny) because they’re white.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      I didn’t read the piece that way at all. It wasn’t demonizing the individuals – white or otherwise – only reporting the particular dysfunctions of this boom town in the middle of nowhere. (The only gratuitous reference to me was the Halliburton one.) I didn’t see anywhere where she was suggesting people who need work/money forego these jobs.

      1. Dirk77

        I liked the honesty of the workers: it may be harming the planet, but they need to eat. Something you rarely get in the white collar den of thieves in Manhattan or DC, where the greatest product of their higher learning is the cleverness of their rationalizations.

    3. Fool

      Yeah, man, totally. Every white male is, like, either a “cultural elitists slangin’ Lattes” or of the oppressed working class.

      Did I miss something?

    4. rusti

      While crime has certainly gone up in North Dakota, it is still way under any US averages. For example in stories about Midwestern towns being “revitalized by Central America immigrants” the standard elite NY approach would be that it is racist to discuss the associated increase in crime. And while we are at it, why not compare these supposedly horrible crime rates in North Dakota with those of most American inner cities?

      It seems feasible to me that a place that “workers overwhelmingly call the Wild West” where you can allegedly get away with anything while driving a company truck might not have reliable crime stats.

      1. McMike

        Actually, I’d like to see some substantiation of the assertion about crime rates.

        Perhaps the rates are still below national, even on per capita basis. But compared to other rural areas, and its previous self, crime in the Bakken has exploded in frequency and character.

        Meth, heroin, prostitution, murder, assault & battery, gambling, theft, DUI, gang crimes…. these things went from effectively zero in some communities, to become major problems – confronting an unprepared and overwhelmed police force.

  6. Steve H.

    M. Hudson:
    “Herman and I went to the White House and it was explained to me, that this was the whole idea of tar sands. The aim is to use so much water that it creates a drought in America. The drought was seen as doubling or quadrupling grain prices. In essence, the idea was for America to pay for higher priced oil with higher priced grain. This would support the balance of payments enough to finance U.S. military power throughout the world. In the process, of course, it would starve as much as a quarter of the population of Africa and Latin America.”

    Oh. That explains a bit.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Really interesting Michael Hudson piece. Not directly related to oil. American foreign policy has almost always been based on agricultural exports, not on industrial exports as people might think. It’s by agriculture and control of the food supply that American diplomacy has been able to control most of the Third World. The World Bank’s geopolitical lending strategy has been to turn countries into food deficit areas by convincing them to grow cash crops – plantation export crops – not to feed themselves with their own food crops. Very insightful.

      1. prostratedragon

        Don’t know enough about the evidence to say whether I think Hudson’s point is valid, and am going to read his article later.

        But if US ag exports are such a valued policy tool it would help explain the persistent bug-under-the-saddle treatment of Argentina.

    2. susan the other

      I assume this White House conference was many decades ago and the rationale has only recently been resurrected. Because before global warming drought was a pretty consistent phenomena. Since GW, drought has been offset by a very humid atmosphere. And flooding and coastal inundation and etc. So they dug up this stupid scam now in the midst of the armageddon of environmental crises and thought it was gonna work just fine? Obama at his finest.

      1. Steve H.

        To clarify, you are correct, it looks like he was saying the White House conference was during the Carter administration.

  7. McMike

    How the Other Half Lives

    Found this on Bakken Fail of the Day at Facebook. That FB page has tailed off a bit since the novelty wore off (and industry realized they were their own worst PR). But remains a great on the ground chronicle of the accidents and insanity that comes with a drilling boom.

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