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.

Billy Doyle Walker loved working in the sky. He used to say he could see forever, perched high up communications towers as he applied fresh paint.

Three years ago, working halfway up a 300-foot steel tower at the LBJ Ranch, the panoramic view included the rolling green hills and meadows of the Texas Hill Country. The tower was used by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to communicate with the White House.

The nation's coal miners have lost an advocate — a pulmonologist who helped create a national movement in the 1960's that focused national attention on the deadly coal miners' disease known as black lung.

Dr. Donald Rasmussen died July 23 at age 87 in Beckley, W.V., where he spent close to 50 years assessing, studying and treating coal miners — more than 40,000 of them, by his account. His work documenting the occurrence of black lung helped trigger a statewide miners strike in West Virginia in 1969.

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.

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."

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 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."

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.

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.

For American speedskaters, this Winter Olympics has been defined by controversy over racing suits and disappointment over a lack of podium finishes. Now comes word that the U.S. Olympic Committee will "leave no stone unturned" in looking at how the high hopes of US Speedskating collapsed in Sochi.

The news of a possible inquiry into what went wrong in the 2014 Games led Edward Williams, an attorney who represents speedskaters who have filed complaints with the USOC against US Speedskating, to vent his frustration.

It may seem like a distant memory, but the images are indelible: grizzled veterans tearing down barricades at the National World War II Memorial; armed rangers blocking national park entrance roads with massive signs and government SUVs; and county officials in Utah

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.

Update at 8:45 p.m. ET:

Kings Dominion spokesman Gene Petriello says the theme park is dropping the Miner's Revenge maze from its Halloween lineup in the future.

"At the completion of each season, all Halloween attractions are reviewed to allow for new themes," Petriello says. "As part of its regular rotation, Kings Dominion does not intend to operate the Miner's Revenge Halloween attraction next year."

Petriello would not comment further.

Our original story continues:

The two men involved in the destruction of an ancient rock formation in a Utah state park have been stripped of their leadership positions in the Boy Scouts of America and drummed out of scouting altogether.