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 record levels. 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. In 2015 and 2016, Berkes collaborated with ProPublica on Insult to Injury, a series of stories about a "race to the bottom" in workers' compensation benefits across the country, which won the IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters & Editors, the nation's top award for investigative reporting.

Before moving to the Investigations Unit, 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 among troops from rural areas. Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on presidential and congressional elections.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 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' Olympic and investigative reporting have made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others.

In 1981, Berkes became one of NPR's first national reporters and was based in Salt Lake City, where he pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He traveled thousands of miles 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, and he has served as 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.

In 2016, Berkes revisited the 1986 Challenger story with an update on one of the booster rocket engineers who tried to stop the Challenger launch and who was an anonymous source in the Berkes-Zwerdling report. The engineer, 89-year-old Bob Ebeling, was frail and in hospice care when he told Berkes that he still shouldered guilt for the deaths of the Challenger astronauts. The resulting story prompted hundreds of NPR listeners and readers to write supportive messages, which helped ease Ebeling's guilt. He died a few weeks later – at peace, his family said.

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 with more than 20 major journalism awards, including those given by the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, the Online News Association, the National Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, the UCLA Anderson Loeb Awards, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also won four Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative, sports, and online audio reporting.

Berkes has trained news reporters in workshops across the country 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.

West Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor is a billionaire, a philanthropist and a resort and coal mine owner who cites his business and mining experience as major attributes as he seeks to lead his home state out of a severe budget and economic crisis. "I am not a career politician; I am a career businessman," wrote Jim Justice in an April 5 op-ed that appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail . But an NPR investigation shows that Justice's mining companies still fail to pay...

An Oklahoma law that lets employers opt out of state-regulated workers' compensation has been rejected and declared unconstitutional by state regulators. The Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission called the alternative workplace-benefit plans that some employers adopted under the law "a water mirage on the highway that disappears upon closer inspection." The unanimous ruling by the commission, issued Friday, is expected to be appealed. NPR and ProPublica have also learned that the U.S....

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief. The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them. That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up." When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at...

Kevin Schiller had no idea what hit him. With 21 years on the job, the building engineer for Macy's department stores had been in and out of every nook and cranny of many of the retail giant's Texas stores, including the storage room in the Macy's in Denton, Texas. One minute, the stocky, 6-foot-2 Schiller was searching there for a floor drain. The next, he was sprawled on the floor, stunned, confused and bleeding slightly. "All I heard was a loud crack and I found myself looking up on people...

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. Walker's wife, Krystle Meloy, was 23 then. She was home at the couple's apartment in New...

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...

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 audit comes six months after NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported the failure of federal regulators to collect nearly $70 million in overdue safety fines. Most are two to 10 years late; some go back decades. The audit targets the "civil monetary penalty assessment and collection process" at MSHA, the agency responsible...

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...

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. As NPR and Mine Safety Health News reported in November , thousands of mines with unpaid safety penalties...

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." Stevens tripped on a rug and broke her foot as she carried boxes of magazines. The relatively simple break triggered serious nerve damage and she was...

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. After that, though, their paths couldn't have diverged more sharply: Lewis received $45,000 in workers' compensation...

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 . More than two dozen news organizations, including The Charleston Gazette and NPR, filed appeals after U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sealed nearly all documents in the case and issued a broad gag order silencing attorneys, potential witnesses and families of the 29 victims of the mine disaster. On...

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. NPR and ProPublica report on the changes to workers' compensation laws and how that's putting more of the costs back onto the families and government. Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit...

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. The OSHA paper and ProPublica/NPR stories come to similar conclusions about how some injured workers have been affected by a decade of changes in workers' compensation laws, including cutbacks in benefits and more difficulty in...

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. Oil and sludge pressurized at more than 700 pounds per square inch tore into Whedbee's body, ripping his left arm off just below the elbow. Co-workers...

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...

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." Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was reacting to an investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News , which documented nearly 4,000 injuries and 131,000 violations at more than 4,600 mines — all as they failed to pay nearly $70...

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. "I couldn't hardly breathe," Blankenship...

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 risk is constant," says Tom Hethmon, a professor of mine safety at the University of Utah and a consultant to mining companies around the...

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. MSHA says one victim was operating a mining machine and the other was drilling bolts into the roof of the mine, a...

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. "Retreat mining" is a dangerous...

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...

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." A mine foreman noticed that the miner didn't return, the statement says, and succumbed while trying to find...

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 plotting to storm and takeover five national park areas. The closure of the nation's 400 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, historic sites and battlefields during October's government shutdown became the searing...

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. Beijing , host of the 2008 Summer Games, must miss the Olympic glow — or polluting murky mist, as it turned out to be, given its formal bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. China's capital city is among six Asian and European cities that submitting bids by Thursday's deadline, according to the...

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. In their letter, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and committee member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) cite recent reports from the Center for...

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 benefits." The medical school and hospital system at Johns Hopkins University said in a statement, "We take very seriously the questions raised" in the reports. CPI and ABC focused on Dr. Paul Wheeler, who heads a...

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. Hamby has spent the last year investigating the system that awards compensation to miners stricken with the disease. He found that miners face a concerted industry effort to deny compensation payments, which includes industry-hired lawyers withholding evidence...

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...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYFD18BwmJ4 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. A terse statement issued by the Utah National Parks Council of the BSA does not name Glenn Taylor and David Hall but it says "based on the actions of the individuals involved with the Goblin Valley incident, the Utah National Parks Council has...

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