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.

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The Two-Way
10:48 am
Tue July 17, 2012

Republican Lawmakers Seek To Block Funding On Black Lung Regulation

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 5:33 pm

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have inserted into a broad appropriations bill language that would block funding for a Labor Department effort to reduce the occurrence of black lung, the disease that afflicts coal miners exposed to excessive mine dust.

The bill covers appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Tucked away deep inside the measure is this language:

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The Two-Way
1:02 pm
Fri July 13, 2012

Federal Mine Agency Considering Tougher Response On Black Lung

Coal miner Lee Hipshire in 1976, shortly after emerging from a mine in Logan County, W.Va., at the end of his shift. A few years later, Lee took early retirement because of pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. He died at 57.
Courtesy of Earl Dotter

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 7:54 am

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) have learned that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Labor Department are putting together a team of agency experts and lawyers to specifically consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given the statutory and regulatory weaknesses detailed by NPR and CPI this week in stories about the resurgence of black lung.

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Black Lung Returns To Coal Country
3:45 am
Tue July 10, 2012

Black-Lung Rule Loopholes Leave Miners Vulnerable

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Coal miners rally for black lung law reform on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1975. (See more from Earl Dotter's "Quiet Sickness" series here.)
Courtesy of Earl Dotter

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 9:41 pm

Part two of a two-part series.

Thousands of coal miners continued to suffer and die from black lung during the 40 years that tough new limits on exposure to coal dust were supposed to provide protection.

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Black Lung Returns To Coal Country
4:13 am
Mon July 9, 2012

As Mine Protections Fail, Black Lung Cases Surge

Mark McCowan, 47, was diagnosed with the worst stage of black lung only five years after an X-ray showed he had no sign of the disease.
David Deal for NPR

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 4:26 am

Part one of a two-part series.

It wasn't supposed to happen to coal miners in Mark McCowan's generation. It wasn't supposed to strike so early and so hard. At age 47 and just seven years after his first diagnosis, McCowan shouldn't have a chest X-ray that looks this bad.

"I'm seeing more definition in the mass," McCowan says, pausing for deep breaths as he holds the X-ray film up to the light of his living room window in Pounding Mill, Va.

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The Two-Way
6:21 am
Fri June 1, 2012

Mine Safety Questions Linger, One Year After Takeover Of Massey Energy

Originally published on Fri June 1, 2012 7:05 am

One year ago today, Alpha Natural Resources officially absorbed the troubled coal mining company Massey Energy, which had one of the worst safety records in the industry.

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The Two-Way
4:12 pm
Thu May 24, 2012

New Revenue Deal Means Olympics Could Now Return To U.S.

The United States and International Olympic Committees have formally announced a revenue-sharing agreement that paves the way for the return of the Olympics to the U.S.

Details of the deal were not released but sources familiar with it say it guarantees the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) at least $110 million a year from international Olympic sponsorships and the American rights to televise the games.

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The Two-Way
6:36 pm
Wed May 23, 2012

Tentative Deal Clears Way For U.S. Olympic Hosting Bid

Fireworks fill the sky after the Olympic cauldron was lit on Feb. 8, 2003, marking the one year anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games at the opening and closing ceremony venue in Salt Lake City, the last American city to host the Olympics.
Douglas C. Pizac AP

Olympic officials meeting in Quebec City have reached a tentative agreement in a persistent revenue-sharing dispute responsible, in part, for keeping the Olympics out of the United States for at least 20 years.

The dispute centers on the American share of Olympic revenues. Since 1984, The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has received the biggest portion of the billions of Olympic dollars paid by corporate sponsors and American television networks. And the rest of the Olympic world has resented it.

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The Two-Way
9:02 am
Thu May 10, 2012

Hero Pilot In 1989 United Crash Dies

National Transportation Safety Board investigators check over the burnt remains of a jet engine from the DC-10.
Ed Porter AP

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 10:13 am

[Editor's Note: NPR's Howard Berkes covered the 1989 crash landing of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.]

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Politics
6:33 am
Sun April 22, 2012

Utah's Orrin Hatch Survives GOP Convention

Originally published on Sun April 22, 2012 10:43 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch survived his state's Republican nominating convention yesterday, but barely failed to get enough votes to avoid a June primary. It'll be the six-term senator's first primary in 36 years. Still, he's not complaining because convention delegates didn't toss him from the race and ultimately from the Senate. That's what they did two years ago with three-term incumbent Bob Bennett.

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The Two-Way
11:04 am
Thu April 5, 2012

Two Years After W. Va. Mine Disaster: Grief, Anger And Questions Linger

Tonight, in Whitesville, W.Va., mourners will silently walk with candles on sidewalks lined with luminary lights to remember the 29 coal miners who died two years ago today in the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

That memorial will follow a 3 p.m. ET event in Beckley,W. Va., where an honor guard will ring a bell 29 times to mark the moment the Upper Big Branch coal mine erupted in a massive explosion.

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The Two-Way
3:58 pm
Thu March 29, 2012

Massey Mine Boss Pleads Guilty As Feds Target Execs

Originally published on Thu March 29, 2012 6:34 pm

Thursday's guilty plea and plea agreement from the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia is a key step in the effort to seek criminal charges further up the corporate ladder at Massey Energy, according to court documents and the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of West Virginia.

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The Two-Way
6:26 pm
Tue March 27, 2012

Mine Agency To Congress: Don't Blame Us For Deadly Disaster

As we reported last week, an independent panel reviewing the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster found that the agency "possibly could have prevented" the explosion that took 29 lives.

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The Two-Way
3:55 pm
Fri March 23, 2012

Report: Mine Safety Agency 'Could Have Prevented' Deadly Disaster

Originally published on Fri March 23, 2012 5:40 pm

An independent review of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) enforcement at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in West Virginia says the agency failed to spot "a number of enforcement deficiencies" at the mine which were major factors in the April 2010 explosion that took 29 lives.

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The Two-Way
3:38 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Mining Company Pleads Guilty In 2007 Utah Mine Disaster Case

Coal mining company Genwal Resources has pleaded guilty to corporate criminal charges stemming from the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that left nine miners and rescuers dead.

Federal prosecutors say a plea agreement includes a provision that no criminal charges will be filed against any individuals in the case.

Federal and congressional investigators blamed the an initial mine collapse on "retreat mining," in which pillars of coal holding up the roof of the mine are dug out, causing collapse of the mine behind them.

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The Two-Way
3:28 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Mormon Church Limits Access to Controversial Baptism Records

Sunrise hits the Mormon church's temple in Salt Lake City.
Douglas C. Pizac AP

Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 5:12 pm

Persistent pressure and criticism have prompted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to erect a new "technological barrier" in the system used for controversial posthumous or proxy baptisms.

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The Two-Way
2:54 pm
Tue March 6, 2012

Mine Safety Agency Reports Failures Before Deadly Explosion

Mine helmets and painted crosses sat at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine on April 5, as a memorial to the 29 miners killed there one year earlier.
Jeff Gentner AP

Originally published on Tue March 6, 2012 6:19 pm

The latest federal review of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion again blames Massey Energy for the deaths of 29 coal miners and says Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) failures did not directly contribute to the blast.

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The Two-Way
1:47 pm
Sat March 3, 2012

Mormon Leaders Warn Followers To Stop Controversial Baptisms

The sun sets behind the Mormon Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square, in Salt Lake City.
Douglas C. Pizac AP

Originally published on Sun March 4, 2012 12:00 pm

Mormons around the world are getting this warning Sunday: Stop posthumous baptisms of "unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims."

"Our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors," says a letter to be read in every Mormon congregation. "Those whose names are submitted for proxy [baptisms] should be related to the submitter."

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The Two-Way
4:00 pm
Fri March 2, 2012

Mine Safety Officials Ditched Safety Citation Fearing Congressional Scrutiny

Originally published on Fri March 2, 2012 6:25 pm

NPR has obtained a report from the Inspector General of the Labor Department that describes an incident last year in which the nation's coal mine safety chief and agency lawyers withdrew a legitimate safety citation and order "not based upon the merits" but "to avoid the appearance of retaliation and possible Congressional scrutiny."

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The Two-Way
6:52 am
Wed February 29, 2012

UPDATED: Ex-Mine Security Chief Sentenced To Three Years

Originally published on Wed February 29, 2012 1:59 pm

(The top of this post was updated at 1:45 p.m. ET with news of the prison sentence, and at 3 p.m. ET with the U.S. Attorney's reaction.)

A federal judge in West Virginia has sentenced Hughie Stover to three years in prison. Stover is the former security chief of the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners died in a massive explosion in 2010.

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The Two-Way
1:30 pm
Thu February 23, 2012

West Virginia Report On Mine Disaster Points To State's Shortcomings

At an April 25, 2010, service in Beckley, W. Va., for the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion, helmets — placed on crosses — were lined up in their honor.
Jewel Samad AFP/Getty Images

West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has issued what is now the fourth investigative report on the April, 2010, Upper Big Branch mine explosion. It largely agrees with the earlier reviews, but in language that's tepid in comparison.

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The Two-Way
8:15 am
Wed February 22, 2012

Massey Mine Boss Charged In Deadly Coal Mine Explosion

Originally published on Wed February 22, 2012 6:29 pm

(Scroll down for several updates and the document prosecutors filed today.)

Federal prosecutors in Charleston, W.Va., have filed the most serious criminal charges yet in the April, 2010, coal mine explosion that left 29 mine workers dead.

The conspiracy charges reach into the management ranks of Massey Energy and signal an effort to seek evidence against higher-level executives.

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The Two-Way
6:23 am
Tue February 14, 2012

Mormon Baptism Of Wiesenthal Kin Sparks Jewish Outrage

Originally published on Tue February 14, 2012 10:08 am

Two decades of anger, apologies and agreements have failed to keep the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from ending posthumous Mormon baptisms of prominent Jews and holocaust victims.

In the latest incident, the parents of the late Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of a Nazi death camp and an advocate for holocaust victims, were baptized in a Mormon ceremony.

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The Two-Way
12:09 pm
Mon February 13, 2012

Mine Disaster Investigators To Visit White House, But Not Obama

Super Bowl and World Series champions do it. Olympic athletes do it. War heroes do it. They all get to visit the White House and meet with an admiring President of the United States.

This Wednesday, the federal mine safety regulators who investigated the deadly 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia will travel to the White House and Capitol Hill. An email to the group lists morning tours of the White House and the Capitol and a "special White House event" at 2 p.m.

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The Two-Way
1:15 pm
Wed February 8, 2012

10 Years After '02 Winter Games, Salt Lake Considers Another Olympics

American figure skater Sarah Hughes won gold at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Jacques DeMarthon AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed February 8, 2012 3:02 pm

Just hours before the symbolic rekindling of the Salt Lake Olympic cauldron, officials in Utah today sought to rekindle the 2002 Olympic spirit, announcing they're considering another Olympic bid.

The disclosure at the Utah Olympic speedskating oval in suburban Kearns, comes exactly 10 years after the 2002 Winter Games began.

"Ten years ago, Utah 'Lit the Fire Within,' and today that flame still burns bright," said Gov. Gary Herbert (R). In fact, as celebrations of the 2002 anniversary begin, some Utahns are wearing their official Olympic volunteer coats again.

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The Two-Way
5:44 pm
Mon February 6, 2012

Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch

Engineer Roger Boisjoly examines a model of the O-Rings, used to bring the Space Shuttle into orbit, at a meeting of senior executives and academic representatives in Rye, New York in Sept. 1991.
AP

Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah in January, 1986, when he and four colleagues became embroiled in the fatal decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Boisjoly was also one of two confidential sources quoted by NPR three weeks later in the first detailed report about the Challenger launch decision, and the stiff resistance by Boisjoly and other Thiokol engineers.

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