Researchers from Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science & Technology) have developed a chemically modified nanocellulose sponge that could help clean up oil spills. Shown here, a droplet of water (blue) sits on the surface, whereas a droplet of oil (red) is absorbed by the material. In the lab, test substances such as engine oil, silicone oil, ethanol, acetone, and chloroform were absorbed within seconds. The absorbent can be produced in an environmentally friendly manner from recycled paper, wood, or agricultural by-products.

Credit: Empa

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Round up: Spying, Drones, Spills Everywhere, Increasing Cyberattacks, and Globalized Revolt

We’re going to start publishing a round-up of important news, videos and events we think vital to our followers, particularly related to activism around the world. It’s likely we’ll make these posts on Sunday. We didn’t have enough time to really ponder how to format it, but since so much happened last week, we threw together a quick summary together for you anyway.

In case you aren’t aware, we recently started a subreddit, which we’re monitoring throughout the day. If there’s an event or story you’d like to bring to our attention, that’s a good place to post it.

Trend 1 - Spying, Drone Murder, Torturing Drone Opponents, Fighting Back

U.S. drone strikes rely heavily on the metadata collected through NSA technology:

Monday, we got our first glimpse at First Look Media’s first project, the Intercept, a digital magazine (founded by controversial billionaire Pierre Omidyar) dedicated to reporting on top secret documents obtained by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Their debut article, written by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, exposes the intimate relationship between NSA phone surveillance and CIA drone strikes carried out overseas. We learned that (according to sources speaking on the condition of anonymity) the majority of U.S. drone strikes are based on cell phone metadata data collected by the NSA through an operation code named GILGAMESH.

The journalists published statements by a former drone operator, who worked directly with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as a former member of the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant, who has publicly come out to oppose U.S. foreign policy with regards to the use of drones.

Read the full article by the Intercept.

Australian spies colluded with the NSA while spying on an American lawyers:

Another story, originated with documents obtained by Snowden, revealed that an Australian spy agency eavesdropped on the communications of an American law firm, who at the time was representing Indonesian officials during a trade dispute. We also learned that NSA officials had been consulted during the process. Previous leaks obtained from Snowden have illustrated that the NSA has taken part in economic espionage, in some cases, sabotaging security products utilized by American corporations in an attempt to syphon the private data of U.S. citizens.

Read the full article by the New York Times.

Pakistani anti-drone activist kidnapped and tortured:

Kareem Khan filed a $500 million lawsuit against the U.S. government after a drone strike killed both his brother and his son in 2010. Khan was kidnapped from his home on February 5 before he could testify before the E.U. Parliament. According to sources at CNN, the men who vanished Khan were wearing police uniforms. After his release was demanded by the Lahore High Court, he was released, and dumped from a van onto the street wearing a blindfold. A statement from Khan says that he plans to continue his work opposing U.S. drone strikes.

The Day We Fight Back:

Tuesday, a coalition of tech companies and activist organizations led a united front against NSA surveillance, called “ The Day We Fight Back.” Although smaller in scale, the action was reminiscent of the January 2012 opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Over 6000 organizations joined the call, including Reddit, Google, and Mozilla. Although some did not employ the use of the banner on their site, statements were issued in favor of the event. In total, 37 million users are said to have seen the banner, over 555,000 emails were sent to U.S. congressmen, and 301,000 signatures were obtained on a petition. In addition, the event was shared 420,000 times on Facebook, and it was tweeted over 84,000 times. The Day We Fight Back website was visited over a million times.

See more on Storify.

Trend 2 - Environmental disasters - spills, spills everywhere

YourAnonNews highly recommends that our followers check out the Earth First! Direct Action Manual. Funds are currently being raised to print and distribute the recently updated manual on Indiegogo. Information recently leaked to the public illustrates how the FBI, working in tandem with local law enforcement agencies, as well as natural gas companies, falsely portray nonviolent anti-fracking protests by Earth First! (and other groups) as malicious, life-threatening eco-terrorists. But who are the real eco-terrorists?

Here are some incidents we noticed this week that we think may classify as eco-terrorism:

- There have been 3 oil spills in Singapore in the last two weeks, caused by tankers near harbor colliding with each other.

- A natural gas pipeline in Tioga, North Dakota exploded on Monday night.

- A Chevron-owned natural gas well exploded in Greene County, PA on Tuesday. (The fires continued well into Saturday afternoon.)

- On Tuesday, Patriot Coal, a Missouri-based coal company, spilled more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into a West Virginia river.

- U.S. prosecutors continue to fumble about, investigating whether or not the dumping of coal ash sludge into a North Carolina river used for drinking water constitutes a crime.

- As of Thursday, there are five ongoing “cracked earth” oil spills at a Canadian Natural Resources Limited facility in Alberta’s tar sands.

- On Friday, a train carrying Canadian oil derailed in Vandergrift, PA, spilling 3.5 - 4,500 gallons of heavy crude.

- Also on Friday, a new study showed that methane emissions from fracking in North America are far more destructive than the EPA has previously owned up to.

For more information check out DeSmogBlog and Earth First! Newswire.

Trend 3 - Cyberwarfare is rapidly expanding across the globe:

Last week, a series of large DDoS attacks occurred, which seemingly originated from various countries, which experts say shows that “hacking” (lulz) is more often being used as a weapon by not only hackers, but governments and corporations as well.

DDoS attacks could become very frequent, as the #internetofthings adds billions of connected devices for #malware to run on. @OxbloodRuffin

— Modelling Design (@ModellingDesign)

February 11, 2014

Stories that stand out from this week:

- Comcast downplays serious hack, as user data was compromised.

- Careto ”The Mask” malware spying campaign was exposed after seven years in the wild. According to Reuters, “A computer security software firm has uncovered what it calls the first cyber espionage campaign believed to be started by a Spanish-speaking country, targeting government agencies, energy companies and activists in 31 countries.” As of now, the origins of The Mask are unknown .

- Bitcoin exchange Bitstamp halts withdrawals, citing DDoS attack:

- ‘World’s largest DDoS strike’ hits Cloudflare

- Syrian Electronic Army hacks Forbes and steals user data.

- iPhone, IE10 suffer ‘monster’ hacks; Apple won’t talk security with developer who found the flaw.

- Hackers gain access to Kickstarter customer data.

- And RedHack, a hacker group who frequently collaborates with Anonymous, leaked the contacts of U.S. Embassy staff in Turkey

Trend 4 -Globalized Revolt

- Denouncing the gentrification and higher cost of living brought to their city by the tech industry, protesters in Seattle blockaded a Microsoft employee shuttle for 45 minutes on Monday. This action comes on the heels of similar “counterforce” protests against Google in the San Francisco bay area.

- Thousands marched on Brazil’s capital on Wednesday, demanding justice for landless farmers exploited by powerful Agribusiness interests.

- Thursday in Oakland, CA: Nine arrested in civil disobedience action at a State building, demanding the prosecution of killer cops.

- Thursday in Rome: 17 housing rights activists were arrested, while police attacked solidarity demonstrations.

- Friday in Minnesota: Anti-war activists confronted academic drone advocate Oren Gross at a speaking event.

- This week in Venezuela: Anti-government protests have escalated into rampant street clashes, with several protesters (both pro- and anti-government) killed. The Venezuelan government imposed censorship on Twitter, has deployed the armed forces against opposition forces, while claiming the demonstrations are an attempt by elite financial interests to overthrow a democratically elected government. Some media outlets have been caught red-handed spreading fake pictures associated with these protests.

- Widespread protest is unfolding in Bosnia (Herzegovina) against privatization, government corruption and economic inequality. Protesters have created popular assemblies called “Plenums” to make decisions in a non-hierarchical manner.

- In neighboring Montenegro, protests are also escalating due to widespread unemployment and political corruption.

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Staining The Sundarbans - 1

It was 5am as we set off from Chandpai forest station, heading south into the Sundarbans. A thick dark fog hung sullenly about us. A few kilometers on, visibility beyond the prow fell to near zero, forcing us to dock mid-river.

As we waited, voices rang out from somewhere in the thick blur: fishermen singing to semaphore their presence. Occasionally a low dinghy would row quietly by, unseen until it was almost upon us.

In the distance, a ship boomed its approach. Our boat master shook his head in concern. In such poor visibility, we’d stand no chance if we stood in its path. He revved up the engine and guided us into a khal (a channel).

5am on December 9, 2014 must have been just such a scene. The Oil Tanker Southern Star -7 was docked four kilometers from the confluence of the rivers Sela and Passur, near Mrigamari in dense fog. It carried 350,000 liters of heavy black viscous furnace oil.

The fog must have been at its darkest and alertness at its dullest when a cargo ship, also plying the same channel, loomed unexpectedly upon the tanker. The Southern Star-7 stood no chance.

When the cargo ship rammed into it, it nose-dived its cargo into the Sela River.

The Sela is part of the Sundarbans, the largest unbroken stand of mangrove forests in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. A fragile ecosystem that has adapted itself to life on the brink of brine, for these mangroves form the margin between the salt water of the Bay of Bengal and the freshwaters of three mighty South Asian rivers: The Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna.

Sundarbans, which literally translates as “beautiful forest”, straddles the border between India and Bangladesh along the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. India has 40% and Bangladesh has 60% of the mangroves. Both areas are designated wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests.

This mangrove margin is home to some of the world’s most endangered creatures: the masked finfoot; the Irrawaddy, Gangetic, and four other kinds of dolphins; the Bengal tiger and the beautiful, endangered sundri tree (Heritiera fomes). Almost a million forest people depend upon this ecosystem for their livelihood.

By definition and by law, heavy shipping traffic carrying hazardous cargo has no place in the Sundarbans.  Yet in Bangladesh, tankers carrying “modified cargo” — oil, pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides, fly ash, cement, sand, and salt — cleave the channels of this fragile ecosystem every day; each traverse a disaster waiting to happen.

On December 9th, the Fates were tempted once too often. Two ships collided; 230,000 liters of oil poisoned this fragile, protected environment.

Our boat, the Gol-Patta, reached the Sundarbans on December 14, four days after the spill. Men, women, and children were knee deep in the mudflats and elbow deep in heavy fuel oil. They were scraping black, viscous goo from sedges, reeds, leaves, trunks, roots. Each painstaking handful of black pulp collected was smeared off along the rim of a cooking pot. Then they turned back to the plants for more.

Children were covered in black from toe to waist.

Khals — channels filled with sweet and brine, that snake through the mangroves — now flowed dark, dirty, and viscous. The forest stood ankle deep in low tide, in 3m high black tar socks. The high-tide line had become the oil-line.

The river below danced with oil too: graded by thickness from black to brown and then all colors of the rainbow.

Dark acrid stinging fumes spiraled from fires heating oil in the sleepy fishing village of Joymoni on the Sela river.

Save for the blackened fishermen and children, we saw no one else cleaning the spill. The slick sloshed forward in the ebbing tide. We followed it: 4 km past the spill site, 8 km past the spill site, 12 km past the spill site, then fifteen … twenty … thirty … forty … the slick sloshed ahead of us, beside us, behind us. Films of oil of varying thicknesses floated in the main channel and pooled in the smaller khals.

The tide went out by nightfall and came back in at dawn. The oil, ditto.

With the dawn tide came fishermen who had seen the slick almost 80 km down the river.

Oil was everywhere – thick, doom-black, hugging the sides of the mangroves for almost 30km, and a playful, almost beautiful swish of colors afloat along the 80 km stretch of river.

The plants and trees of mangrove forests are uniquely adapted to the salt-and-sweet water inter-tidal zone. They deal with submergence during high tide by sprouting aerial roots, snorkels that stay above the water to breathe. Those snorkels (called pneumatophores) were now smothered in black oil; the forest seemed like it was choking, gasping for breath.

Consequences of the spill were all around us, yet so much more remained unseen, unquantified.

In Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, newspapers screamed of dying animals. Activists on social media posted doctored images of oil-dripping dolphins and oil-swimming tigers. To counter the anger, the government spokespersons shot back officialese for ‘no harm came from the oil-spill and it is all under control.’

The dark truth lurked somewhere in-between.

Animals caught in the water during the first few days of the spill were coated with oil, and may have died. We had seen a blackened crocodile slip tentatively into a brown slick 10 km from the spill site, but we had no way of knowing its fate. We had also seen flocks of egrets there, flying white and free of any smears.

The worry was not so much of animals dying in the immediate aftermath, but of the oil staying in the water, on the mudflats, and smearing the trees.

The effects of the coated and residual oil will be seen over months in the forests of this ecosystem. It could manifest in hormonal changes and reproductive changes, over time, in animals exposed to the substance. How exactly this spill will affect the ecosystem can only be determined by a scientific longitudinal study which, at this point, no one has signed up to do.

A spill of this magnitude in an area this ecologically sensitive is a qualifiable, quantifiable disaster mandating emergency measures. Yet, clean-up operations have been slow and unscientific, and are focused only on recovering the oil from the banks in a buy-back scheme by the company, Padma Oil, that owned the barrels in the Southern Star-7.

Here is where the hazard lies: fishermen from the village (Joymoni) most affected by the spill are collecting the oil. Children, women, men, all scrape the goo by hand and collect floating smeared plant matter that they dump into their boats. The boats are towed back to the village “depot” by the Forest Department, which is coordinating the effort (with local NGOs). Here, the plant matter is boiled and heated to loosen the oil. This is collected in barrels, and trucked back to Padma Oil.

The fishermen are doing all the collection and boiling sans any protective gear. They are smeared in oil by day on the river, and engulfed in its fumes when they get home. These oils contain chemicals that are toxic. It can have dire digestive, pulmonary, and dermatological effects and, if the exposure extends over time, also neurotoxic effects.

Eleven days after the spill, the children of Joymoni have begun to fall sick. They have been throwing up. But no one cares, no one spares a thought – it is all about recovering and selling back the oil.

No lessons appear to have been learnt. The Bangladesh shipping ministry has already begun to push for resumption of shipping traffic through the Sundarbans. Area rumor says the matter has been taken out of the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Transportation and transferred to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The Bangladeshi government, after dragging its feet in the aftermath of the spill and then organizing the cleanup in haphazard manner, has its eye firmly fixed on the lost revenue from the stalled shipping lane, and is now desperately downplaying the extent of the disaster.

How things unfold in the aftermath of this disaster remains to be seen. I will continue to report on this incident, and analyze how we got here. The reportage will also focus on a larger problem looming over the Sundarbans.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened 26 years ago today

Eva Saulitis, a breast cancer survivor and orca researcher who documented the spill as it unfolded, wrote for onEarth last year about returning to Prince William Sound on the 25th anniversary to heal not only from the pain of the event but also from the crisis playing out in her body.

“As a grad student in her twenties, filled with rage at what I witnessed daily, a sense of purpose carried me through that toxic summer 25 years ago—a drive to document the spill’s impact on orcas, a drive to do something meaningful, and a drive to act against Exxon’s attempts to whitewash the incident, already underway. That was my only stay against despair. It felt like madness: oil everywhere, media spectacles of the cleanup, boats and helicopters and planes harassing orcas. And yet, all the while, life kept trying to do what it had always done. Nature’s force asserted itself with plankton blooms, salmon runs, and births of seal pups on oiled rocks. And I, too, pushed on mechanically in order to survive.

Twenty-one years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The date was April 20, 2010, the day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. For the next 87 days, as I endured surgery and round after round of chemotherapy, I watched the billowing plume of oil erupting from the sea floor and radiating across the Gulf. Memories of the Exxon Valdez disaster rose to the surface, breaking through the whitewash of time and amnesia and self-protection.” 

See more photos and read more of this amazing article here. 

Photo cred: Top: Jim Brickett, Middle: Chris Mueller, Bottom: NOAA