In the spirit of the great Jan Brady, last week can only be summed up with three words: “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
Our attention turned abroad with a flurry of updates from the G20 summit: a cease-fire deal in Syria and the he said-he said accounts of what exactly happened in a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, we learned the president’s son met with a Russian lawyer who offered compromising information about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, though that information was never shared, Donald Trump Jr. said, posting the contents of his email exchanges on Twitter.
Take a break from the star of the news cycle with these overlooked but important stories that are getting lost in the shuffle.
1. A federal report points to recent hacking attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure
Federal agencies believe hackers have been targeting the computer networks at various nuclear power plants and other energy facilities across the country, a report obtained by The New York Times revealed.
The joint report by Homeland Security and the FBI said security officials have been responding to attacks at these facilities, including the Wolf Creek Nuclear power plant in Kansas, since May.
The extent of these breaches wasn’t immediately clear, but a Homeland spokesman told the Times that, “There is no indication of a threat to public safety, as any potential impact appears to be limited to administrative and business networks.”
There are several unknowns, according to the Times and other outlets. Among them: the exact number of facilities affected, who the hackers were and what exactly they were seeking to do. Sources told Bloomberg that Russia was a suspect. The attacks mimicked the tactics of a Russian hacking group, The Times said. But the true origins of the hackers have not yet been pinned down.
Why it’s important
Knowledge of this joint report from Homeland and the FBI comes after two, wide-scale ransomware attacks in a matter of weeks.
At the end of June, hackers attacked and temporarily disabled the Ukrainian government’s computer systems. Cybersecurity experts believed the attack’s origins to be in Russia, though that has not been proven. And then British investigators blamed North Korea for the WannaCry attacks in May.
Noteworthy in both of these episodes was that the tools used to carry out these attacks were stolen from the U.S.’ National Security Agency after a hacking group released the cyberweapons in a data dump in April.
While the NSA and the White House have been mum over the responsibility of these stolen hacking tools, the voices of critics have grown louder, including former CIA Director Leon Panetta.
“I’m not sure we understand the full capability of what can happen, that these sophisticated viruses can suddenly mutate into other areas you didn’t intend, more and more,” Panetta is quoted as saying in a recent interview. “That’s the threat we’re going to face in the near future,” he added.
Ransomware is not a new cyberweapon — its origins can be traced back to 1989 — but the level of sophistication seen in the latest global attacks give security experts pause.
For example, Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said U.S. infrastructure, while stronger than in years past, is still vulnerable to increasingly advanced hacks.
“We never anticipated that our critical infrastructure control systems would be facing advanced levels of malware,” Wellinghoff said in a recent interview.
2. Nooses continue to appear at a higher frequency across the country
A U.S. Mint employee was placed on administrative leave after surveillance footage captured the white worker leaving a noose on the factory floor in late June.
The New York Times, following an emailed tip, got in touch with the Mint workers’ union president, who provided more details, including that the white employee had fashioned the noose out of rope used for coin bags on the factory floor. The coin maker then left the loop of rope at the workstation belonging to a black employee. Surveillance video captured the incident mid-afternoon on June 28.
Mint officials said in a statement that there was “absolutely zero tolerance” for this behavior, adding that an internal investigation was underway, CBS Philly reported.
Why it’s important
We’ve seen this year a string of reported cases involving the hangman’s noose, long a racist expression meant to terrorize and intimidate African-Americans.
Many of the reports focused on the nation’s capital, with nooses found at several museums in Washington, D.C., including the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Times also cited noose sightings in Florida, North Carolina and Maryland in the past few months.
The Times also noted the recent ramped-up activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The racist organization is associated with the noose, a symbol evocative of lynchings and racial terror in the U.S.
Recently, bananas were found hanging from nooses on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C. The racist displays were discovered the same day Taylor Dumpson, 21, started her role as student government president. She’s the first black woman to hold that position in the institution’s history.
Taylor Dumpson described to the Times what happened when she was able to process the moment after days of addressing students’ concerns and media requests.
“I went into a panic mode,” she told the Times. “When there’s a hurricane or a tornado they always tell you to get in a hallway between two walls, crouch down, turn the lights off — that was my immediate reaction. I was concerned for my safety. I closed all the blinds, closed the doors, everything was dark, and I just sat in the hallway crying,” she said.
3. Rural Americans more likely to die of cancer than residents in urban areas, CDC says
People living in rural areas are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer, but more likely to die of the disease. That’s according to new government data that highlights cancer health disparities between rural and urban America and signals the need for targeted improvements in cancer screening and treatment, researchers say.
In what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the nation’s first comprehensive look at cancer incidence and mortality, the study shows that doctors diagnosed rural residents with cancer at a lower rate — 442.4 incidence per 100,000 people — than in urban areas, where the rate was 457.3 incidence per 100,000, according to 2004-2015 cancer incidence and mortality data from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. But when researchers analyzed cancer death rates, they found people in more remote areas died at a greater rate — 180.4 deaths per 100,000 — than people in more urban areas, where people died at 157.8 deaths per 100,000, said Jane Henley, an epidemiologist with the CDC who analyzes data from the National Program of Cancer Registries and factors that influence preventable cancers, such as tobacco and alcohol use, exercise and obesity.
“Geography shouldn’t be a risk factor,” Henley told the NewsHour.
Why it’s important
For years, cancer has rivaled heart disease as one of the most common causes of death among Americans. This year, nearly 1.7 million Americans will be newly diagnosed with cancer, and roughly 600,000 Americans will die of it, according to estimates from the National Cancer Institute. Greater availability of and access to cancer screening tests, especially for lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers, could bring needed attention and treatment to the illness earlier and improve the odds of a patient’s survival, regardless of where that person lives, Henley said.
People in rural U.S. counties are spread across vast stretches of land. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that determines which counties qualify as rural, 46.2 million residents, or 14 percent of the nation’s population, are scattered across nearly three-quarters of U.S. land. Between 2010 and 2014, rural populations slightly declined before leveling off in 2015.
In rural communities, just traveling to a doctor’s office for a screening test can be an obstacle to fighting cancer, Henley said: “Instead of a trip you could take on your lunch break, it could be a whole-day endeavor.”
States need to explore their own data and develop targeted strategies to improve cancer screening and outcomes for more remote communities, said Henley, who lives in suburban Atlanta but whose parents live in rural Indiana and face day-long treks for doctor’s appointments.
“The differences between rural and urban areas seems to be getting worse over time,” she said. “We need to do more to level the playing field so that people can benefit no matter where they live.”
4. Water systems are crumbling. What should local governments do about it?
When people talk about the country’s infrastructure needs, they usually focus on bridges, railways and highways.
But there are more than 51,300 community water systems across the country, according to the American Civil Society of Engineers. Many, faced with aging pipes and mounting debt, are wrestling with whether to hand over control to for-profit corporations — a fundamental shift in how American cities handle their drinking water.
At the moment, 12 percent of Americans get their water from private water systems, the Washington Post reported, which have the funding to move quickly on repairs local governments can’t afford. Twenty-three such sales were made through March of this year, the Post said. The downside: Companies often recoup those costs from taxpayers by hiking rates. Some states also allow companies to spread the cost of repairs across all of the water systems it owns.
Many of the towns and cities who move forward with that kind of decision are coming to regret it, the Post reported last week, as it chronicled the story of Lake Station, Illinois, and the debate around its June decision to sell its water infrastructure to American Water.
Why it’s important
In the mid to late 20th-century, water infrastructure boomed, with millions of pipes laid in towns and cities across the country. Now, those pipes are reaching their lifespan of 75 to 100 years; the ACSE counts 240,000 water main breaks last year, which “can contaminate water, flood streets, disrupt businesses and require expensive emergency repairs,” the Post pointed out.
Water systems are not sexy, and thus, they don’t usually grab headlines. But they’re inextricably linked to our day to day lives. If neglected, they pose a bevy of issues: “Outdated treatment plants have trouble filtering out potentially harmful chemicals. Old pipes can leach dangerous levels of lead into drinking water. Some communities have higher lead levels than Flint, Michigan, where a confluence of bad decisions and coverups led to widespread lead contamination,” the Post continues.
The ACSE’s annual infrastructure report card estimated localities will need more than $1 trillion in funding to repair and expand service over the next two and a half decades.
Yet President Donald Trump’s proposed budget removes nearly $500 in loans for rural water projects; along with other reductions, the funding for water system overhauls is about the same as it was in 1997, the Post said.
Which brings us to why so many cities are turning to other sources of revenue, or handing off their systems entirely.
It’s not clear how privatization will help (or hurt) those issues, or relieve local jurisdictions’ financial burdens. But the Post said some municipalities, unsatisfied with rates or services, have actually gone back and tried to reclaim ownership of their infrastructure.
Either way, these decisions “shouldn’t be rushed,” Janice Beecher, the director of Michigan State University’s Institute of Public Utilities, told the Post. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
5. Historians release rare glimpse of life in Hiroshima before the U.S. atomic bombing
New footage released by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum depicts quintessential life in Japan about 10 years prior to the country’s destruction after the U.S. atomic bombing.
The museum released the 4K resolution film on July 5. The silent 16mm footage shows a bustling Hiroshima: families stroll the city streets and people row boats on the river.
“The film brings back memories of the days when I rowed boats and went fishing on the Motoyasugawa river,” Tokuso Hamai, 82, told the Japan-based newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun.
Genjiro Kawasaki, a local Hiroshima resident, captured the footage in the 1930s, and in 1963, donated the video to the museum. Imagica West Corp., a visual production company, helped digitally replicate the film. The film is believed to have been shot between April 4 and 5 in 1935.
Why it’s important
Kawasaki’s footage offers a rare glimpse into Hiroshima before it was devastated by the nuclear attack, which occurred on August 6, 1945. During World War II, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb, killing nearly 150,000 people in Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a second atomic bomb killed more than 70,000 in Japan’s northwestern city, Nagasaki.
Museum staff have made plans to request the public’s help in gathering materials in order to further depict life before the atomic bomb.