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While Trump Made Nice With Putin in Helsinki, Alleged Russian Agent Charged in U.S. Court

A friend of the NRA and a Russian spy?: There’s a lot to digest from Helsinki this week. But don’t miss this story happening not in Finland but in Washington. Mariia Butina, a 29-year-old Russian gun enthusiast who entered the U.S. on a student visa in 2016, was arrested Sunday and accused of being a Russian agent working with Americans to influence U.S. politics, charges her lawyer denies. “Prosecutors said that an American political operative helped Ms. Butina identify political, news media and business officials to target,” a team of New York Times reporters write. “Ms. Butina met the operative in Moscow, prosecutors said. Quoting from emails, prosecutors laid out the most explicit evidence to date that Americans knowingly aided the Russian influence effort.” Butina is the 26th Russian to face charges related to election interference and the first one arrested. The charges against her were unsealed hours after Trump stood next to Putin and said he saw no reason to think that the Russians were responsible for election interference. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he said. Mother Jones has reported extensively on Butina’s connections to the National Rifle Association and the Trump campaign.

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Faking tests in Kentucky mines: Eight former supervisors and safety officials at a now-bankrupt Kentucky coal company have been indicted on charges of trying to trick federal mine safety regulators by rigging tests of  workers’ exposure to coal dust. A grand jury found that Armstrong Energy officials removed dust testing devices from miners before their shifts were over and ran them in less dusty air to skew the results. They also were accused of submitting dust samples that were actually made on days when the mine was shut down. The officials ordered testing devices to be run in “clean air” before or after worker shifts and a mine superintendent twice ordered a safety official to do whatever was necessary to make sure the company passed its sampling tests, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release. Miners in Appalachia are experiencing a surge in advanced black lung disease, caused by dust exposure. Investigators went after Armstrong based on tips from the miners themselves, according to a report by public radio station WKU. “Miners have a tough choice,” said Tony Oppegard, an attorney who worked with some of the miners who came forward. “Work in excessive dust knowing they are harming themselves, but knowing if they complain they are subject to being harassed or fired.”

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Head trauma and the NHL: A federal judge denied a request from former National Hockey League players to obtain class-action status in a case claiming the league promoted violent play and failed to do enough to keep players from suffering repeated head injuries with long-term health effects. The case was originally filed in 2013 and more than 100 former players have added their names. In a 46-page order, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson cited differences in workers compensation laws from state to state, saying the rules about medical monitoring, which the players are seeking, would “present significant case management difficulties,” the Associated Press reported. More than 5,000 former players would have been able to join the group if the judge had ruled differently. An attorney for the players told the AP that hundreds are prepared to pursue their cases individually. National Football League players succeeded in obtaining class-action status, though the resulting settlement is the source of ongoing legal sparring.

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‘No-poach’ clauses off the menu at fast-food franchises: Seven fast-food chains have agreed to drop contract provisions that have prohibited workers from moving from one franchise to another. Franchise owners said the clauses protect their investment in training new employees, Rachel Abrams of The New York Times reports. But the clauses are thought to contribute to wage stagnation, hold back workers looking for a better position or more hours, and rob them of an important negotiating tool – another job offer.

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A Pence family legacy: Working since the age of 14 for the chain of gas stations that his family built is very much a part of Vice President Pence’s story and his connection to small business owners. That company, Kiel Bros. Oil Co., shuttered in 2004, leaving behind dozens of contaminated sites across three states that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up, Brian Slodysko of the Associated Press reports. A Pence spokeswoman described the topic as “a years old issue” that he has addressed previously. But the AP dove deep into court documents, tax and business filings, federal financial disclosures and environmental records to assess the scope of the problem. It’s big: Kentucky and Illinois have spent about $1.7 million cleaning up 25 former Kiel Bros. sites. The state of Indiana has spent $21 million to clean up more than 40 sites, and there’s much more to do.

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Shipyards cited after drowning deaths: Two shipyard operators have been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after employees drowned. On Jan. 21, 34-year-old Padmore Kofi Atakorah was working on a pressure valve at North Florida Shipyards when a manifold struck him and knocked him into the St. Johns River, according to a press release and local reports. His body was recovered about two weeks later. Regulators cited North Florida Shipyards Inc. for failing to protect workers from known hazards and has proposed $271,061 in penalties. The same month, a tow boat helmed by Capt. James W. Cleary Jr. capsized near the entrance to the Pungo River in North Carolina while towing a 47-foot recreational boat, killing Cleary. Belhaven Shipyard and Marina Inc., doing business as TowBoatUS River Forest, was cited for allowing the tow to occur when a state of emergency had been called for a winter storm. It faces $11,640 in proposed penalties.

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Gauging your health on Facebook: Health insurers are collecting huge amounts of personal data about their customers and could use it to determine how much people should pay for insurance, Marshall Allen of ProPublica reports. Insurers say that they use the data to flag health problems among their clients and to get them the services they need. But patient advocates and privacy scholars told Allen that insurers are undermining patient privacy and that using personal information, such as how much TV a person watches, their race or relationship status, or what they order through the mail, to set rates would be questionable at best. “Are you a woman who’s purchased plus-size clothing?” Allen writes as an example. “You’re considered at risk of depression. Mental health care can be expensive.” Patient privacy laws in the United States regulate how companies handle medical information. But personal information, including what we all share on social media channels, is essentially free for the taking in the United States. Not so in the European Union, where a strict ban on trading in personal data recently took effect.

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Looking (but not too hard) for PFAS: ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten takes a look at the latest developments related to perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and uncovers this news: When checking for contamination, the U.S. military relied on tests that were not capable of detecting all of the chemicals thought to be present. And the decision to do so may have been deliberate. “Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ [the DOD and the Environmental Protection Agency] own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds,” Lustgarten writes. As many as 110 million Americans may be exposed to PFAS through public drinking water, according to an assessment from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. The chemicals have been widely used to make consumer products water- and stain-resistant. The military used them in firefighting foam. A government report released last month after being delayed by the Trump administration said that the safe exposure threshold for drinking water now recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency is too high and should be at least seven times lower.

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More cyclosporiasis: Last week it was convenience store vegetable trays. This week, it’s McDonald’s. Sixty-one people in seven states have been sickened by the Cyclospora parasite linked to salads sold by the fast-food chain. Two people have been hospitalized. McDonald’s said it voluntarily stopped selling salads at about 3,000 stores, mostly in the Midwest, until they could switch to another lettuce supplier, though federal health officials said they still weren’t sure which components of the salad were responsible for the outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that the outbreak is related to the one linked to Del Monte Fresh Produce vegetable trays. As of July 13, that outbreak included 227 confirmed cases and seven hospitalizations.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.