Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached a record high. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA.

Before moving into his current role, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, through the 2012 games in London. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work. Berkes was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. His analysis of regional issues was featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes has also trained news reporters, consulted with radio news departments, and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

In 1998, the year that Sepp Blatter took the helm at FIFA, the world soccer governing body, the International Olympic Committee became ensnared in its worst ethics crisis ever. As with FIFA, there were allegations of bribery, influence-peddling and corruption among IOC members and the shadowy "agents" who helped cities bidding for the Olympics.

Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games was the focus of investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and Utah prosecutors, and corporate sponsors concerned about tainted Olympic rings threatened to pull out.

The inspector general of the Labor Department is conducting an audit of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's handling of delinquent mine safety penalties.

Billionaire Jim Justice is said to be West Virginia's richest man. Now he wants to be the state's top elected official.

Justice announced his Democratic bid for governor Monday in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., which is home to his best-known asset — the posh and historic Greenbrier Resort.

"You need somebody that loves our state," Justice told a crowd of supporters, "and somebody that doesn't want a nickel for doing it."

Democratic lawmakers in Illinois sought to turn back proposed cutbacks in workers' compensation benefits with a rare eight-hour hearing Tuesday before the entire Illinois House.

House Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan convened the hearing in response to workers' compensation changes proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

A California Senate committee has approved a bill that directly addresses a problem reported in the ProPublica/NPR investigation of state changes in workers' compensation benefits.

The tattoos on Dennis Whedbee's left arm describe what he lost when the North Dakota oil rig where he was working blew out in 2012. There's an image of a severed hand spurting blood, framed by the word "LOST" in block letters and the date: "9-23-12."

The message underscores Whedbee's frustration with a workers' compensation system in which benefits and access to benefits have changed in North Dakota and across the country.

"I lost a hand at work and this is workman's comp," Whedbee, 53, says at his home in Pennsylvania. "Give me what I deserve. I deserve a hand."

Federal lawmakers have revived a mine safety reform bill that addresses a regulatory failure detailed in a joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act includes a provision that directly addresses the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) failure to fully enforce penalties for safety violations at the nation's mines.

Frances Stevens could have been a contender. She was training to be a Golden Gloves boxer and working as a magazine publisher in 1997 when 1,000 copies of the latest issue arrived at her San Francisco office.

"I'd just turned 30. I was an athlete. I had a job that I loved, a life that I loved," she recalls. "And in a second my life changed."

California's labor department says it will conduct an audit of how Travelers Insurance handled the case of paralyzed worker Joel Ramirez, who was left to fend for himself for months after the company withdrew his 24-hour home health care.

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children's names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

A federal appeals court has vacated a sweeping gag order in the criminal case involving former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster.

Workers injured on the job are supposed to get guaranteed medical care and money to live on. Employers and their insurance companies pay for that.

And in return, employers don't get sued for workplace accidents. But this "grand bargain," as it's called, in workers' compensation, seems to be unraveling.

A few hours after ProPublica and NPR issued the first in a series of reports about workers' compensation "reforms" sweeping the country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration coincidentally released a paper linking workplace injuries to income inequality.

Dennis Whedbee's crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, N.D.

It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrick hand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.

Two weeks after NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported nearly $70 million in delinquent mine safety penalties at more than 4,000 coal and mineral mines, federal regulators suddenly revived a rare approach to force mines to pay.

They cited a delinquent coal mine for failing to pay $30,000 in overdue penalties and gave the mine's owner two weeks to pay. He didn't, so the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) shut down the mine. Within 40 minutes, mine officials agreed to a payment plan and the mine reopened.

A federal judge in West Virginia has rejected the pleas of NPR and other news organizations and upheld a sweeping gag order in the criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Blankenship faces charges of conspiracy and securities fraud, which stem from the federal criminal investigation of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Raleigh County, W.Va. The explosion killed 29 coal miners.

A key House Republican called today for federal regulators to crack down on mine owners who don't pay fines for safety violations, saying, "Clearly more can be done."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal grand jury in West Virginia has indicted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for allegedly thwarting mine safety enforcement and conspiring to violate mine safety law when the company owned the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

In 2010, the mine exploded and 29 miners died. The indictment stems from that disaster and also accuses Blankenship of lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission about the company's safety practices and stock purchases.

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enraged families of the victims of the Soma mine disaster by characterizing mining accidents as "ordinary things."

In fact, the disaster appears to have ordinary causes familiar to mining experts, who note that well-known precautions exist to prevent the kind of explosion that killed so many in Turkey.

More than 280 miners have died in Turkey with another 150 still missing. It's hard to imagine how so many can perish in a mine accident in modern times.

The West Virginia mine where two workers were fatally injured on Monday consistently violated federal mine safety laws, but federal regulators say they were unable to shut it down completely.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration confirmed that two workers were killed on May 12 when coal and rocks burst from mine walls at Patriot Coal's Brody No. 1 mine in Boone County, W.Va.

2 Die In W.Va. Mine With Troubled Safety Record

May 13, 2014

Two coal miners died in a mine accident in Boone County, W.Va., Monday night, in a mine with a troubled safety record.

The accident occurred at the Brody Mine No.1, which is owned by Patriot Coal. In a statement, the company says the deaths were caused by "a severe coal burst as the mine was conducting retreat mining operations."

A burst occurs when the downward pressure of the earth sitting above the mine forces coal or rock to shoot out from the rock walls.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Labor Department has announced new rules to protect coalminers from black lung. Regulations were supposed to eradicate black lung decades ago. Yet when I went to college in Eastern Kentucky's coal mining region, some of my fellow students had fathers who'd been killed by it. Black lung is blamed for 76,000 deaths over 50 years.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports how the rules are changing now.

One of the men killed at the Revenue-Virginius mine in Ouray, Colo., on Sunday was trying to find the other miner who died.

New details of the incident from the Mine Safety and Health Administration were released Monday. The agency says in a statement that "preliminary information" indicates "that a miner entered an area of the mine where an explosive had been previously detonated."

With the upcoming Winter Olympics set in a subtropical, palm tree-lined resort city on Russia's Black Sea, it's no surprise that two former Summer Olympics hosts are now seeking the 2022 Winter Games.

Two Democratic congressmen have formally asked the Labor Department's Inspector General to investigate "allegations of misconduct by doctors and lawyers working on behalf of the coal industry" and their roles in the denials of benefits for coal miners stricken with black lung disease.

Johns Hopkins Medicine says it will suspend and review its black lung program, following joint investigative reports last week from the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News that found the program "helped coal companies thwart efforts by ailing mine workers to receive disability benefi

My investigative reporting colleague Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity has a compelling and troubling follow-up to our jointly-reported series last year on the resurgence of the deadly coal miners' disease black lung.

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