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Slideshow: How Russian activists circumvent restrictions on protests

The independent press and organized protests in Russia have faced restrictions during the current administration of President Vladimir Putin. The intersection of these two issues was visible on the streets of St. Petersburg over the weekend when demonstrators came out to protest government propaganda about events in Ukraine and pressure on independent media, including a new law which allows federal prosecutors to shut down online media outlets without a court order.

When protests do not have permission from local authorities, its participants use a tactic known as “single protester pickets” to avoid arrest. Demonstrators, standing at least 160 feet apart, hold signs to express their opinion. Ekaterina Danilova took these photographs of an unsanctioned protest against censorship in Russia.

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Families occupy buildings in São Paulo as housing costs soar

Over the last five years, rising real estate speculation in central São Paulo has created a deficit of affordable housing. In response, left wing housing movements seize abandoned buildings, transforming them into housing units for poor and vulnerable families. From São Paulo, Sam Cowie reports.

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Occupation Rua Martins Fontes is a six story former government building in downtown São Paulo, about half a mile from the city’s financial district.

Abandoned for 15 years, the building was occupied in 2011 by Movimento de Moradia do Centro (MMC) – one of São Paulo’s several housing movements.

Today, Martins Fontes is home to some 50 families – around 150 people – including students, office cleaners, cooks, teachers, restaurant workers and several children.

GeGe (a pseudonym) is the leader of the MMC and is responsible for two other occupied buildings in central São Paulo. “We want to live with dignity in central São Paulo,” he says. “For example, to live in an apartment with two rooms and a living room and a service area. We don’t want to live badly or far away from our jobs. This is our collective wish.” He says the buildings have a strict set of rules – no alcohol, no drugs, no violence. All residents must respect each other. Anyone caught breaking the rules is expelled.

São Paulo is the biggest city in South America. Sheer size coupled with horrendous traffic conditions mean those who live on the city’s outskirts usually spend up to four hours in transit each day. Since 2008, real estate prices in São Paulo have shot up by nearly 200%, which has led to a rise in housing occupations. According to local government data -  around 50 occupied buildings in central São Paulo house some 4000 families.

The makeshift, partitioned rooms at Occupation Martins Fontes are given to families whose combined total income is less than the equivalent of around 800 dollars a month.

Jose Manoel, one of the building’s unofficial leaders, says that the majority of residents choose to live in the building so that they are close to amenities and don’t have to spend hours in traffic. Manoel was one of the first to enter the building to commence a clean-up operation shortly after it had been vacated by crack addicts. He explains that when they first occupied the building, “it was filthy, an absolute mess, full of rubbish and old furniture. It stank of urine. There were human feces and lots of rats.”

Monica Perreia do Santos is a former government employee, now studying social assistance at a nearby university. She lives on the third floor with her husband, who is also a student, in a small room with a bed, a TV, a laptop and a small stove. Like the rest of the rooms in the occupied building, she doesn’t have running water.

The building only has two working toilets and showers, both on the first floor. Electricity in the building doesn’t come on until 7:30pm. Yet for Monica, the building’s central location is more important. “I don’t have to pay for public transport to go to college,” she explains. “Everything we need here is close by for us. Here, I don’t need to get up early and catch packed buses. My classes start at 8am. Here, I can get up at 7:15. Where I used to live I would get up at 5am. It’s a big difference.”

As well as the convenience of living in the center of the city, many residents at Martin Fontes speak of the benefits of communal living: helping and sharing.

Single mother Lucia Soares lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Natalia, on the fourth floor. She says there is always somebody to look after her young daughter while she is at work. Natalia says that she always has other children to play with.

Soares adds that while the pros outweigh the cons, living in such close quarters with so many people inevitably leads to arguments. “Everyone has their opinion,” says Soares. “You want to do something one way, the other person the other. Sometimes we work it out, but it’s difficult.”

According to the Brazilian Centre for Planning and Analysis, Brazil’s house prices are the highest rising in the Americas.

The number of occupied buildings in São Paulo continues to rise. Earlier this month, six more buildings were occupied by the LWF, another housing movement. LWF leader Helô Soares told local media that the wave of occupations is part of a national campaign and said that the similar actions were happening in other states.

It’s not always tolerated. Last Friday in Rio de Janeiro, police forcibly removed around 6000 people from a former telecoms building that had been empty for 20 years. Many of the former occupants are now camping outside of city hall, demanding a housing alternative.

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Bus bombings kills dozens in Nigeria’s capital

Two powerful explosions killed dozens of people this morning at a crowded bus station in the Nigerian capital Abuja. The explosions follow a weekend of attacks on several towns and villages in North Eastern Nigeria which claimed about 300 lives. Boko Haram, a sect fighting for the imposition of Islamic rule in Nigeria, is believed to be responsible for the attacks. Sam Olukoya reports from Lagos.

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For several hours ambulances moved the dead and injured from the scene of the explosions at Nyanya, a suburb of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Authorities put the death toll at 71, but independent reports indicate it could be as high as 200. Rescue workers and eyewitnesses said the explosions were so powerful that many of the victims were dismembered, which creates an additional challenge to calculating a death toll. More than a hundred people were critically injured and hospitals are asking the public to donate blood. Many of the victims were government workers who had boarded buses to go to their offices.

Vice President Namadi Sambo says the government is confident that it will soon be able to contain the violence. “Let me further assure you that government will see to the end of the alien criminal and barbaric act, so that life will return to normalcy. We are mindful of the need to act within the universal acceptable standard code of behavior.”

Violence related to the Boko Haram insurgency and government clampdown has spiked since January. A recent report by Amnesty International estimates 1500 people have died in northeastern Nigeria since the start of the year, but today’s bombings are the largest attacks attributed to Boko Haram to occur in the nation’s capital.

Many believe the group is stepping up its attacks ahead of next year’s presidential election in which President Goodluck Jonathan is expected to seek re-election. President Jonathan is from the Christian dominated south and his inauguration represented a power shift away from the Muslim dominated North.

Dr. Sylvester Odion Akhaine, of the Lagos State University, says the Boko Haram attacks are part of political moves by some Muslim extremists to stop a Christian president from ruling the country again. “There are those who see the power shift from the north to south as something that should not have happened.  And before all of us here, we saw people who threatened thunder and brimstone, that there will be trouble if power did not go to the north.”

The central government has been increasing troop level in northeastern Nigeria for years, and the area has been under a state of emergency since last May, but these measures have failed to end the violence. After today’s attacks in the capital, many Nigerians fear the violence may in fact be spreading.

(Image: Map of Abuja within Nigeria. Public domain adaption from United Nations Cartographic Section)

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Hunger strikers deported from Tacoma immigration detention facility

Supporters of a hunger strike launched last month by immigration detainees at a facility owned by the GEO Group in Tacoma, Washington say at least five bus loads of detainees were deported from the Northwest Detention Center early this morning, among them, five hunger strikers. Shannon Young reports.

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Activists who maintain a presence outside of the facility say it’s the largest amount of buses they’ve seen leave in a single day. They estimate at least 130 people were on the buses this morning.

Salvador Chavez Salazar was among those deported this morning. He’s lived nearly 15 years in Washington state and has two U.S.-born daughters. deported Monday morning after nearly 15 years in the US. He signed a voluntary deportation form on Friday after two and a half months in the facility. He said that he’s glad to leave the facility, but sad to leave his family behind.

The Northwest Detention Center made headlines last month when a reported 750 detainees launched a hunger strike over conditions within the facility, including the quality and quantity of food; the cost of commissary items and phone calls; and the one dollar a day pay rate for work.

“They had supposedly agreed to make the bonds slightly more affordable, to make more bonds available, and to change the personnel,” said Chavez Salazar, explaining why he and other detainees launched a second hunger strike shortly after ending the first one. “But it’s the same personnel. They just put them in different areas, but the situation is the same because they still treat people badly.”

The ACLU of Washington State filed a lawsuit earlier this month after 20 hunger strikers were moved to solitary confinement.

The two main organizers of the hunger strikes remain in medical isolation. One of the men, Ramon Mendoza Pascual, has been on hunger strike for 35 of the last 39 days.

Seattle-based immigration rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando says Mendoza Pascual was told he could return to general population if he agreed to eat again. “This is obviously nothing but retaliation because they took their constitutional right to protest in a peaceful manner and instead of ICE really taking this seriously, they have really worked with GEO to retaliate and intimidate them,” contends Mora Villalpando. “The fact that they deported so many people today, they probably just wanted to get rid of all the ones who have been continuing the strike, that continued organizing. But really, this is impossible to stop because once people decided to put their lives – really their lives – on the line, the rest of us are following and I don’t think this is going to stop any time soon.”

Mora Villalpando says a goal of the hunger strike and other acts of civil disobedience is to change the discourse around the issue of immigration reform. She the hunger strikers at the Tacoma facility serve as real-life examples of how current immigration policies divide families. “They’re doing this for their children because they want their children to see that, although they might be deported, they fought. First, to have their children live better lives, but now they’re fighting to keep families together. And not only their families, but all families.”

In the face of congressional inaction, immigration rights activists are looking to the Obama administration to take steps towards changing federal policy. But at the same time, they’re more aware than most that the current administration has deported more people than any other in U.S. history.

(Photo: April 14, 2014, outside of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Credit: Murphy Stack. Used with permission.)

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Slideshow: Mexicans push back against threat of internet censorship

Legislative changes to a telecommunications reform package have sparked protests on and offline in Mexico. Critics are concerned the law will allow the government to stifle free speech online in a country where much of the traditional press is subject to coercion, intimidation and even physical violence. A Mexico City march against a number of provisions in the new Telecommunications Law drew more than 1,000 demonstrators Thursday afternoon. FSRN reporter Andalusia Knoll interviewed one of the organizers and took these photos.

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Mexico’s new Telecommunication Law expands government surveillance and censorship powers: digital rights activist

New telecommunications regulations in Mexico have met opposition online and in the streets. The reform was originally presented as a way to break up telecom monopolies, but critics say it is being used to push through laws which would make lawful the mass surveillance of online activites and make government censorship easy and arbitrary. Activists in Mexico City protested the law Thursday by marching from the headquarters of Televisa – the country’s largest broadcaster – to the Senate. At the march, FSRN’s Andalusia Knoll spoke with Mexican digital rights activist Luis Fernando Garcia.

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FSRN: What do you consider to be the most troubling aspects of the Telecommunications Law?

Luis Fernando Garcia: Well, in our view, the censorship that it allows on the internet. Also, it puts responsibility on – third party liability as it is known – in which companies are made to make decisions on legality of the content that is generated by the users and usually, they abuse this power and they censor things that they shouldn’t.

Also, we are worried about net neutrality provisions which would basically make the internet like TV, you would have to pay for special services like streaming or video games. And it would destroy the basic consensus about the internet; that everyone is equal and everyone can publish everything and traffic will be dealt equally without regard of if it’s a big company or if it’s a small web page that is just emerging.

Also, we’re very, very worried about provisions regarding surveillance. There is a big amplification of the powers put on national security agencies to basically gather and access a whole range of information, of private information, of citizens without any safeguards; no judicial warrant, no transparency, no independent supervision. And we see this as a trend of the government as an attempt to control the internet as a means for political mobilization for political opposition. We see an attempt to curtail the internet as a political force that is in opposition to the government.

For more, listen to the audio file.

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Deepwater Horizon’s legacy in the Gulf still unclear, four years after massive oil spill

It’s been nearly four years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and led to what many call the worst human made environmental disaster in U.S. history. The body of scientific evidence documenting how the spill has affected marine life and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico is accumulating, but the trial to determine fines which will fund restoration efforts is on hold until 2015. Shannon Young reports.

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Scientists who study and monitor marine life in the Gulf of Mexico say the full environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are still unclear nearly four years after the rig explosion and subsequent underwater oil spill.

“Unfortunately much of the science is still under wraps due to the BP trial which continues to drag on – it’s underway – and much research remains to be done,” says Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. The organization released a report this week detailing what is known thus far about the effects of the spill on 14 Gulf species, including bottlenose dolphins, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, sea turtles and oysters.

According to Inkley, not even the clean up operations are complete. “Let’s be clear, no matter what BP or others are telling you, the oil is not gone,” he said this week in a teleconference. “There is oil on the bottom of the Gulf, oil is washing up on the beaches and oil is still in the marshes. I’m really not surprised by this, to tell you the truth. In Prince William Sound in Alaska, 25 years after the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled oil of course, there are still some species that have not fully recovered; two-and-a-half decades later.”

One of the species hardest hit by the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, one of the Gulf’s most emblematic animals. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is an endangered species that rebounded from the brink of extinction after decades of bi-national conservation work in its coastal habitats in Texas and northeastern Mexico.

Dr. Pamela Plotkin, Director of Texas Sea Grant and research professor at the Oceanography department of Texas A&M, said the documented number of Kemp’s ridley nests plummeted by 35% from 2009 to 2010, the year of the BP disaster. “We’re really concerned, those of us who study sea turtles, that there have been some long-term impacts as a result of the oil spill,” commented Plotkin, adding that the number of nests have not recovered since 2010.

Plotkin said chances to recover gains in the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population will require many years of monitoring and of protecting their nests. However, recovery efforts may fall victim to another human factor. “Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to reduce their funding for the nest protection and monitoring programs in Mexico and next year they’re going to withdraw their funding completely.” Plotkin said she doesn’t know the reason behind the funding cut, but that what it means in practical terms is that “now there will be no way to determine the ongoing status of the endangered species that was most likely to have been impacted by the spill.”

Funding for many restoration efforts will depend on the fines BP and other responsible parties will have to pay for Clean Water Act violations. Those fines have yet to be determined and the next BP trial court hearing isn’t scheduled until early next year.

Last month, BP reached an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency which will allow the company to once again qualify for federal contracts. “The federal government is indicating that – that side of the equation – they are prepared to to have BP go back to business as usual,” says Steven Murchie, Campaign Director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. “We ended up in this position because the regulators were too cozy with the industry they were supposed to be monitoring and we have not seen sufficient movement towards stronger enforcement, stronger monitoring, creating more of a firewall between the industry and the regulators.”

Murchie compares the process of holding the parties responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill accountable to the way  in which tobacco companies in the U.S. were – for decades – able to deny the link between smoking and cancer. “Our perspective is that BP has still has not owned up to their responsibility to make things right here in the Gulf. They’re spending a lot of money on lawyers and public relations campaigns and fighting as hard as they can to avoid having to pay to fix the Gulf at least to as good as it was before the disaster.”

While the Deepwater Horizon spill did put a momentary damper on Gulf drilling activities, the business press is now filled with stories of a new deepwater oil boom. And the so-called boom isn’t just limited to U.S. waters. Late last year, the U.S. Congress ratified a bi-national treaty with Mexico to expand drilling activities in the Gulf.

(Photo: Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Creative Commons license.)

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Mekong River Commission ministerial; environmentalists disappointed

Environmental activists are disappointed that leaders from Vietnam and Cambodia failed to call for an immediate halt to construction of two hydro-power dams on the lower Mekong River during the latest ministerial meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Hanoi. The dams are the first two of 11 proposed along the lower Mekong River and are located in Laos. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok that scientists and environmentalists are concerned about the dam’s impact on migratory fish and water-flow affecting millions of people living along the river.


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The Lower Mekong River runs from northern Laos down through Thailand and Cambodia to the delta region of Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea. About 60 million people live in the river’s basin. Leaders from countries through which the lower Mekong River flows met last weekend in Hanoi at a ministerial of the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that conducts research and planning for the watershed.

At the meeting’s close, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said cooperation was key to ensure sustained development along the Mekong, noting “severe negative impacts” from demographic and environmental changes. Mr. Dung pointed to increasing pressure on the river’s waters and related resources along the entire Mekong basin as a result of population growth, water demand and climate change.

Vietnam’s delta region is the country’s main rice producing area, supporting a population of 20 million people. The delta is already experiencing rising salt water intrusion due to lower fresh water flow, which has reduced by 10 per cent during the past 30 years. But environmentalists had called on the commission to address concerns about two dams being planned and built in Laos. Both dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong are mainstream dams on the lower Mekong. The U.S.-based non-government group, International Rivers says work on the projects should have been halted immediately.

“This is disappointing. No words on the status of construction on at least two dams that are being built on the mainstream river – the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dam – there is no actions in it,” said Pianporn Deetes, an activist for International Rivers, who had hoped that leaders would condemn the current rush to build the dams. “But the Mekong River needs immediate action from the decision and action from all leaders. It’s very important for member countries to recognize that this is really an international river – an international issue.”

The controversial 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam, a focus of debate at a ministerial meeting in 2012, is now 30 per cent complete. Laos has pressed ahead with the project despite earlier concerns raised by Vietnam and Cambodia and calls for a 10 year moratorium to study the likely impact of the dams. Laos also plans to build the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam, near the border with Cambodia. Environmentalists and scientists say the dam will interfere with the migration of dozens of fish species and the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphin.

“The key concern with the Don Sahong with its the main dry season fish migratory route moving up and downstream over the falls,” says Philip Hersch of the Sydney University’s Mekong Research Center. “Even during other parts of the year while there are other channels the fish can navigate rather the Hor Sahong channel remain the main path through which fish migrate. So we’re talking about a relatively small proportion of the water that would be held back and blocked through Hor Sahong but a very large proportion of the fish migration.”

A study conducted by the Mekong River Commission itself, warned the dams could reduce fish stocks by 300,000 tonnes a year, and would be especially hard felt by millions of people in Cambodia.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams are but the first two of what under current development plans would be a total of 11 dams in Laos and Cambodia along 1,488  miles of the Lower Mekong. But the Commission, set up in 1995, largely has no enforcement powers and relies on individual countries to adhere to pledges made at key meetings.

According to Robert Mather, regional representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the intergovernmental body’s methods of settling issues are inadequate. “What we saw from the Xayaburi – which was the first time that this process was put into play by the MRC was that it was quite confusing.” Mather continued, “How do we improve it and make the process better the second time around? But we really don’t see a very good process at the moment and I think that’s quite worrisome.”

Senglong Youk from the Cambodia based Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) thinks the commission should be reformed to include civil society groups as stakeholders. “At the current position what we can say as a civil society is that the MRC is like a Paper Tiger, it’s like a postman, it has no power at all. No authority at all to put the pressure on any country specifically like Laos PDR that make the decisions to build the dams on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong.”

Environmentalists are now preparing a campaign to delay the Don Sahong project, which still requires ratification by the Laos National Assembly, expected to take place in December.

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Urgent hazardous waste clean up ongoing in Humboldt County, California

An emergency hazardous materials clean-up is under way in Humboldt County, California where millions of gallons of highly corrosive chemicals are stored in unstable tanks that are leaking. Daniel Mintz of KMUD radio reports that the chemicals are being removed from a vacated pulp mill located on the shores of Humboldt Bay.

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The shuttered pulp mill on Northern California’s Samoa Peninsula once drove the local economy but now it’s an environmental threat demanding a multimillion dollar emergency response.

Last November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, declared the mill site an imminent and substantial threat to both the environment of Humboldt Bay and to human health. The most intense danger is the presence of up to four million gallons of extremely corrosive pulping liquors—chemicals that were used to extract pulp from wood chips.

The pulp liquors are stored in five cement silo tanks and five steel tanks that date back to the mid-1960s, when the mill was built. The tanks are leaking, have been infiltrated by rainwater and are in danger of structural failure.

In addition to being an ecologically sensitive area, Humboldt Bay is the hub of a multimillion dollar oyster industry.  “There would be disastrous effects if one of the storage tanks failed. And that could happen at any time,” said EPA Emergency Response Coordinator Steve Calanog, adding “Normally in an operating facility that has bulk storage containers of this size, there’s some industry standard of periodic integrity testing to ensure that they can withstand the pressures of storing the volumes that they do store. But there hasn’t been any integrity testing on these tanks in decades as far as I can tell. Earthquakes would certainly be a contributing factor to causing a tank failure but it is quite possible that the tanks could catastrophically fail on their own.”

A working mill in Longview, Washington has agreed to take the caustic chemical liquor and will reuse it. But plans to transport the hazardous materials by barge were put on hold when the port where the chemicals would be offloaded demanded nearly a million dollars of upgrades.

Jack Crider is the CEO of the Humboldt County Harbor District.  He said  “once we got down to the nitty gritty of docking the barge in Longview, the costs were way too high and we ended up with about 2.5 million dollars for the barging versus about 1.6 million dollars for the trucks.” Crider continued  ” …  we’ll start with trucks because we need to get the product moving but we’re still looking for barges. That probably is a safer and more efficient way to do it and we’re still negotiating with Longview on the pricing but we have to start.”

The urgency to begin the clean-up grew after an offshore earthquake last March highlighted seismic risks.

When the first of up to 800 truckloads of the mill’s hazardous chemicals were loaded for transport to the Longview mill, the EPA held a press conference at the mill site.

According to Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator,  “this was a disaster that miraculously did not happen.” Blumenfeld went on to say the agency doesn’t see situations at this magnitude every day. “We don’t see this every day in California and we don’t see this every day on the West Coast. This is really an enormous mess – absolutely enormous. So, three million gallons of the black liquor – that stuff is highly corrosive, it has a PH of 13 or 14, which is the highest PH you can get. There’s 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid. There’s 10,000 tons — 10,000 tons — of highly corrosive sludge. Unfortunately, there was a problem of containment. The corrosive material was meant to be in metal tanks. It ended up in cement tanks. Those cement tanks have begun to corrode and some of them are to the brim. Literally, with the rain today, if we weren’t pumping it out, they would overflow.”

The removal process will take up to eight months.  Now the mill property is owned by the Harbor District, which bought it for one dollar and an agreement to take on its liabilities.

The mill’s history is over, but the site could enter a new phase of use. If the Harbor District’s plans are realized, an aquaculture business park, renewable energy research facility and shipping hub will be developed on the site.

The clean-up will cost about 4 million dollars. A one-and-a-quarter million dollar loan has been advanced by Coast Seafoods Company, a lynchpin of the local oyster production industry. The debt will be repaid through the sale of the mill’s boiler and other equipment. Funding the clean-up is otherwise uncertain.

The EPA may take enforcement action., but collecting penalties from insolvent mill companies would be difficult.

As the first trucks loaded with caustic hazardous waste left for Washington, Blumenfeld said his agency won’t leave the mill site “until it’s clean.”

Daniel Mintz, FSRN, Eureka, California.