5 overlooked stories that are (almost) entirely politics-free

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Scorched trees stand above pasture burned by wildfires near Higgins, Texas. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Scorched trees stand above pasture burned by wildfires near Higgins, Texas. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Last week was all about Capitol Hill. There were hearings on Russia and even more hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorusch, capped by a 24-hour period in which the Republican health care overhaul went from iffy to poised for passage to totally dead.

As President Donald Trump and Republicans play the blame game, and the investigation into Russia is plagued by questions about its leadership, we’re taking a break from politics to look at these five important stories that were overrun by last week’s news cycle.

1. After devastating wildfires in the Midwest, ranchers say they see a lackluster response from the Trump administration

A chimney is all that stands in the footprint of a home destroyed by wildfires near Laverne, Oklahoma.

A chimney is all that stands in the footprint of a home destroyed by wildfires near Laverne, Oklahoma. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Earlier this month, wildfires across four states — Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — claimed seven lives, killed families’ cattle herds and burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of ranch land.

In one case, three ranchers in the Texas Panhandle died trying to protect their cattle from the flames, an emergency management coordinator in Gray County, Texas, told CNN.

That same week, Kansas also recorded the largest wildfire in the state’s history. After surveying their charred land, ranchers encountered burned carcasses of their cattle; mercy killed other cattle badly injured by the flames, the Associated Press reported.

A Clark County, Kansas, emergency management spokeswoman told AP that “frankly there’s not much left to burn” when asked about concerns of conditions reigniting fires there.

Beyond the Midwestern states, dry conditions and high winds fueled fires in the Florida swamplands as well.

With the wildfire season in the U.S. just beginning for the year, ranchers’ fears have been fanned by the prospect of further damage to their livelihood.

Why it’s important

Kay Rottmayer, 65, looks at farm equipment that was destroyed by wildfires near Knowles, Oklahoma. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Kay Rottmayer, 65, looks at farm equipment that was destroyed by wildfires near Knowles, Oklahoma. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Last week, the Department of Agriculture announced $6 million in aid set aside for ranchers and farmers affected by the wildfires. The money will be devoted to helping victims rebuild their fences and livestock and restore the large swaths of land devastated in the fires.

But some say President Donald Trump’s administration has had a tepid response to the aftermath of wildfires in the Midwest.

“This is the country that elected Donald Trump,” Garth Gardiner, a rancher who lost 500 cows to the fires, told The New York Times. “I think he’d be doing himself a favor to come and visit us.”

Despite help from local and neighboring organizations, the Agriculture Department — which also has emergency programs to help with restoration — faces up to 21 percent cuts under the latest budget proposal from the Trump administration, the Times pointed out.

“America’s farmers and ranchers are struggling, and we need to be extremely careful not to exacerbate these conditions,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway said about the proposal earlier this month.

2. How a police department’s public awareness campaign led to confusion about D.C.’s missing child cases

After the Metropolitan Police Department began posting photos and information about missing teenagers on its official Twitter page last week, public outrage quickly reached a crescendo on social media.

The reaction was fueled in part by an Instagram post widely shared online that alleged 14 girls went missing from the nation’s capital in a single day. The misinformation led to an understanding that there was an uptick in the volume of missing teenager cases involving black and Latina girls.

D.C. authorities initially tried to course-correct on Twitter responding to concerns about the lack of publicity on the cases. “There isn’t a spike in missing people in DC, we’re just using social media more to help locate them,” one tweet said in response to someone who asked, “Where is the public outcry?”

The police department has recorded 527 missing teenager cases so far for the year. Fourteen of those cases remain open.

Authorities have maintained that the rate of juvenile missing cases is similar to years past. As NBC Washington pointed out, the number of missing child cases went from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016.

But when the chorus of impassioned advocates and citizens grew, authorities responded by holding a news conference, explaining that the posts on social media were only meant to create more awareness of these cases.

Why it’s important

In the wake of the news conference, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Friday that the city planned to allocate more resources and establish a task force that would address what would cause girls to run away from home.

On the latter point, Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, told the Washington Post that the girls are often “repeat runaways.”

“So, if we really want to help solve this problem and bring down the numbers, we have to break the cycle of young people, especially young girls, who repeatedly run away from home,” he said.

This hasn’t exactly quelled concerns over the lack of visibility of these cases in media coverage. But despite the initial misleading information about these cases, Robert Lowery, vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the overall “narrative is good” in the conversations over the missing children.

“The more the public becomes aware of this issue of missing children, the more lives that can be protected and potentially even saved,” he told CNN.

3. Thousands of U.S. cities and towns have lead poisoning levels higher than Flint’s

Emeryville Vice-Mayor John Bauters gestures to a neglected property in Emeryville, California, that likely has lead paint. A report by Reuters shows thousands of communities where lead exposure could rival levels seen in Flint. Photo by REUTERS/Noah Berger.

Emeryville Vice-Mayor John Bauters gestures to a neglected property in Emeryville, California, that likely has lead paint. A report by Reuters shows thousands of communities where lead exposure could rival levels seen in Flint. Photo by REUTERS/Noah Berger

The Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 but only started to attract widespread media attention more than a year later, is one of the worst public health issues in recent memory. The city did not ensure water was properly treated when it switched its water supply, causing lead from corroded old pipes to leak into the city’s drinking water. Thousands of children have seen elevated levels of lead in their blood since.

But according to a Reuters report, children in thousands of other places across the country could have similar — if not worse — exposure to lead. And few people know about it.

The Reuters report identified five other lead poisoning “hot spots” aside from Flint: St. Joseph, Missouri; South Bend, Indiana; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Baltimore; and some parts of the state of California.

California, a health-focused state known for its environmental laws, is one of the more striking areas highlighted in the report. According to data from the California Department of Public Health, obtained by Reuters, children in 29 California neighborhoods were exposed to levels of lead that rival those in Flint.

NewsHour’s Michael Rios reports:

In one Fresno community, about 14 percent of children tested for lead levels higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold of five micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Comparatively, 5 percent of children in Flint tested above the CDC threshold during the early stages of that city’s contaminated water crisis.

High lead levels were also found in parts of downtown Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In Alameda County, eight communities reported levels equal to or greater than Flint’s rates. In Los Angeles, four communities reached or surpassed Flint’s levels.

Why it’s important

A map from Reuters shows areas of California with high lead exposure.

A map from Reuters shows areas of California with high lead exposure.

The Reuters report, which compiled lead testing results from localities across the country, “found almost 3,000 areas with poisoning rates far higher than in the tainted Michigan city. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.”

Yet we aren’t hearing anything about them, the report says.

Knowing about exposure is one thing. Doing something about it is another. Fallout over the Flint water crisis continues years after it was first detected. This week, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit over the crisis, Michigan and the City of Flint agreed to pay $87 million to replace 18,000 water lines in the city by 2020. It will keep another $10 million in the reserve for any further repairs, CBS reported. The possible effects of lead poisoning in children — such as learning and behavioral problems and issues with major organs — are harder to both see and fix.

Part of the reason Flint could begin to correct course was their ability to pinpoint the source of the lead: old pipes. In California, officials have yet to determine what caused the spike in lead poisoning, though they noted it could include lead-based paint, or contaminated soil or drinking water. That means it will take longer to discover what’s making people sick, and take steps to make sure it doesn’t keep happening.

In response to Reuters’ investigation, California lawmaker Bill Quirk also introduced a bill that would require lead testing for all children in the state.

Other states would be wise to take similar action, experts say. But it’s unclear how much help would actually be available to them. While Congress recently gave Flint $170 million in aid, “that’s 10 times the CDC’s budget for assisting states with lead poisoning this year,” Reuters pointed out.

4. Signs of life return to Japan’s “Namie,” a deserted town once affected by a nuclear meltdown

Owner of Asada timber factory, Munehiro Asada, poses for a photo at his factory's timber-yard in Namie town, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Residents will return to the town after six years starting April 1. Photo by REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Owner of Asada timber factory, Munehiro Asada, poses for a photo at his factory’s timber-yard in Namie town, near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Residents will return to the town after six years starting April 1. Photo by REUTERS/Toru Hanai.

After six years, a desolate Japanese town devastated by past nuclear waste will once again open its doors to residents near Fukushima.

The town, dubbed “Namie,” a quiet wasteland of shuttered windows and occasional wild boars, has not been opened to the public since March 2011. An earthquake and tsunami provoked a meltdown within the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, reported international weekly magazine New Scientist, prompting an evacuation of more than 100,000 people residing within 20 kilometers of the affected plant. Radioactive releases continued for four to six days. The meltdown was rated seventh on the International Nuclear Events Scale.

No deaths or radiation sicknesses have been reported in connection with the accident.
But the radiation contamination, deemed too dangerous for inhabitants at the time of the meltdown, has scared away residents ever since. The town was previously home to 21,500 inhabitants and is expected to see several hundred people return during the first wave, Reuters reported.

Why it’s important

A classroom at Ukedo elementary school, damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is seen near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan,. Photo by REUTERS/Toru Hanai .

A classroom at Ukedo elementary school, damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami, is seen near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Photo by REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Nuclear energy is vital to Japan’s economy and prosperity. In 2011, nuclear energy accounted for almost 30 percent of the country’s total electricity production. But despite the country’s heavy reliance on nuclear energy, its history is a dark one. More than 100,000 deaths have occurred in Japan during wartime by cause of nuclear weapons.

Namie is now considered safe. In order for evacuation orders to be cleared, radiation levels must fall below 20 millisieverts per year, a fifth of what doctors consider substantial enough for possible long-term health effects. And some experts told New Scientist it’s actually been safe for some time.

Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, told Reuters that reconstruction efforts could possibly create jobs and attract research firms.

But as many as 53 percent of former residents in a government poll from September say they are choosing not to return. Young people have also expressed trepidation about returning, causing some concern over the town’s longevity.

“Young people will not go back,” Yasuo Fujita, a former Namie resident, told Reuters. “There will neither be jobs nor education for children.”

The town has also seen a surge in wildlife. Since the meltdown, wild boards have taken up residence. The animals currently have radiation levels 300 times higher than the country’s safety standards, according to The New York Times. Hunting teams place approximately 30 traps twice a week in an effort to control the contaminated boars.

“After people left, they began coming down from the mountains and now they are not going back,” Soichiro Sakamoto, a member of the boar hunting team, told The New York Daily News. “They found a place that was comfortable. There was plenty of food and no one to come after them. This is their new home now.”

Revitalizing the town’s life is more important now than ever, Mayor Baba told Reuters.

“Six long years have passed. If the evacuation is prolonged further, people’s hearts will snap,” he said. “The town could go completely out of existence.”

5. A British teen flags a key error in NASA-collected data

The International Space Station. Photo by NASA.

The International Space Station. A British teen flags a key error in the ISS’ radiation sensors. Photo by NASA.

While examining radiation levels on the International Space Station for a class project, 17-year-old Miles Soloman noticed an error.

The British teen found that radiation sensors on the ISS just so happened to be recording false data.

So he decided to email a correction to scientists at NASA. And to his surprise, the space station not only responded that they appreciated the correction, but also invited him to help dissect the issue, according to Mashable.

Soloman flagged the error after examining a spreadsheet of radiation levels on the ISS, reported the The Indian Express. The teen then noticed a negative reading was being recorded, a case that is not normal since negative energy cannot be received.

NASA, aware of the issue, had previously believed the error to occur once or twice a year, whereas Soloman had discovered the anomaly was actually occurring multiple times a day.

Why it’s important

The British teen is currently participating in the TimPix project, a venture that allows students across the UK the chance to work closely with space station data. The project is part of the Institute for Research in Schools, or IRIS.

Becky Parker, director of IRIS told the BBC Radio 4’s World at One program, that the program strives to attract a younger generation of students to STEM.

“IRIS brings real scientific research into the hands of students no matter their background or the context of the school,” Parker said. “The experience inspires them to become the next generation of scientists.”

It was a sophisticated discovery, from a young person whose generation will be tasked with the NASA monitoring of the future. But, as he told the BBC, he’s still a kid — and so are his friends.

“They obviously think I’m a nerd,” Soloman said. “It’s really a mixture of jealousy and boredom when I tell them all the details.”

READ MORE: 5 important stories that have nothing to do with politics

Clarification: This story has been updated to indicate Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear energy.

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