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.

The 2013 wildfire season hit a milestone Tuesday: Preparedness Level 5, an officious way of saying resources are stretched thin and it could quickly get worse.

Preparedness Level 5 is the highest on the national wildfire preparedness scale, which the National Interagency Fire Center uses to chart wildfire activity, the deployment and availability of firefighters and equipment and the likelihood that more big fires are coming.

With 15,000 firefighters deployed and three dozen major wildfires currently burning in five Western states, this would seem to be a wildfire season for the record books. And in one tragic aspect, it is. But by most measures, 2013 is the second-mildest fire season in the past decade ... so far.

Here's the season to date, by the numbers (provided by the National Interagency Fire Center) and with some historic statistics for comparison.

A year after an embarrassing match-fixing scandal at the London Olympics, badminton is back in the news for being unexpectedly badass.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent a shudder through the Olympic world Wednesday when he told American Olympic network NBC that the United States should consider boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics if Russia grants the asylum request of "NSA leaker" Edward Snowden.

It may seem like wildfire Armageddon out there, given the tragic deaths of 24 wildland firefighters this year, more than 800 homes and businesses burned to the ground, nearly 1.6 million acres scorched and over 23,000 blazes requiring suppression.

But as dramatic as it's been, the 2013 wildfire season has yet to kick into high gear.

"We have seen, overall, less fire activity so far this year," says Randy Eardley, a spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

We have the outlook for wildfire activity for the rest of the year and an assessment of the dramatic but relatively slow season so far.

The president of Russia's Sochi 2014 Olympic Committee could hardly contain himself — although Twitter contained him to 140 characters at a time:

"Our ambition to conquer Space 1st time ever in the Olympic history becomes reality," Dmitry Chernyshenko tweeted Monday. "#Sochi2014's Torch Relay will reach the open space!"

Joshua Kyler Hoggan of Roy, Utah, probably wasn't thinking this far ahead when he conspired to blow up his high school last year.

Hoggan, now 18 and a student at Weber State University, has declared his candidacy for mayor of Roy, challenging two-term incumbent Joe Ritchie and City Council member Willard Cragun, according to the Ogden Standard-Examiner.

Roy is a suburban community about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Already on thin ice after months of turmoil and scandal, the executive director of U.S. Speedskating (USS) has resigned.

Months of claims and counterclaims come to a head in a hotel conference room in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, when the International Skating Union considers the deliberate sabotage of a speed skate involving an American Olympic medalist and, allegedly, his former coach.

The ISU's disciplinary commission is scheduled to hear testimony behind closed doors from Simon Cho, a Vancouver Olympic bronze medalist in short track speedskating, former American short track coach Jae Su Chun, and at least two witnesses.

A federal public defender in Idaho wants a judge to find another lawyer for an Uzbek national charged with aiding a terrorist group and training others in how to build and use a weapon of mass destruction.

If you've felt smug and safe using built-in, voice-controlled technology for text messages, email and phone calls while driving, forget it. There are some sobering findings about the risk of distraction from the American Automobile Association and the University of Utah.

The proliferation of hands-free technology "is a looming public safety crisis," AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet says. "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars."

As privacy advocates and security experts debate the validity of the National Security Agency's massive data gathering operations, the agency is putting the finishing touches on its biggest data farm yet.

The gargantuan $1.2 billion complex at a National Guard base 26 miles south of Salt Lake City features 1.5 million square feet of top secret space. High-performance NSA computers alone will fill up 100,000 square feet.

The Utah Data Center is a data farm that will begin harvesting emails, phone records, text messages and other electronic data in September.

It's the "liquid lie of the desert," as writer Terry Tempest Williams describes it, a vast inland sea so salty it triggers retching when swallowed. Brine shrimp swarm its waters and brine flies blanket the shore. In the right wind and weather its putrid smell reaches Salt Lake City neighborhoods 16 miles away. Storms churn up waves that rival ocean swells.

A new report from grain safety researchers at Purdue University says eight people died while trapped in grain last year, another steep drop from the record year of 2010, when 31 people lost their lives in grain bins and other grain storage facilities.

The continued decline in incidents since 2010 is credited to drier and smaller harvests since then. The grain stored in bins in 2010 was generally harvested wet and tended to spoil and clog. Workers and farmers went into bins to unclog grain and were trapped in a "quicksand" effect common in flowing grain.

U.S. Olympic speedskater Simon Cho will boycott a hearing next week that could result in his receiving a lifetime ban from the sport, NPR has learned.

Cho is the short-track bronze medalist (Vancouver, 2010) who in October confessed to sabotaging the skate of a Canadian athlete during an international meet in Poland in 2011.

Rebellious athletes, drained budgets, dysfunctional management and a string of embarrassing scandals forced a major reorganization of U.S. Speedskating over the weekend.

The group governs a sport that has produced 85 Winter Olympic medals for the United States — more than any other sport. But persistent turmoil threatened continued success in the next Games, just nine months away in Sochi, Russia.

The changes leave USS with a smaller board and without numerous committees that have permitted parochial interests to meddle in the governance of the sport.

The tragic deaths of 29 coal miners in a massive explosion in 2010 have provided new evidence of a resurgence of the disease known as black lung.

The 17-year-old soccer goalie who allegedly punched and killed a referee during a game in Utah last month faces a charge of "homicide by assault" and may be tried as an adult.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill sought the charge in a petition filed with a juvenile court Wednesday. Gill is also seeking to have the unidentified suspect certified as an adult.

Dying on the job continues at a steady pace according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The fatal injury rate for American workers dropped slightly in 2011 — the most recent year with reported numbers — from 3.6 to 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

But 4,693 men, women and teenagers died at work. That's three more than the total number of lives lost on the job in 2010.

Howard Berkes is an NPR correspondent based in Salt Lake City.

It may have been the dumbest thing I ever said. On April 19, 1999, I stood before an audience at Idaho State University in Pocatello, talking about the cruelest month. April, I pointed out, and April 19 in particular, have provided celebrated, infamous and sometimes horrific moments in our history.

What was it about the month, I wondered, or the time of year, that made April so meaningful and at times so cruel? Back then, the list was relatively short:

Dale Atkins has been tracking hundreds of avalanche deaths for years but the fatality report that arrived from Utah Friday morning was especially shocking.

"It's way too close to home," says Atkins, the Colorado-based president of the American Avalanche Association. "It's mind numbing...it's a slashing chill."

There was no formal acknowledgment of the historic moment Saturday when Jean Stevens stood at a dark wooden podium framed by potted plants and colorful flowers in the cavernous Mormon conference center in Salt Lake City.

"Our beloved father in heaven," she began, as 20,000 faithful and silent Mormons in the building listened, and as millions of others (according to Church officials) watched on television screens around the world.

Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Justice Department are beginning to respond to the NPR-Center for Public Integrity Series on hundreds of persistent and preventable deaths in grain storage bins and weak enforcement by federal agencies.

Nearly 500 farmers and workers have suffocated in grain storage bins in the past 40 years. The worst year on record was 2010, with 26 people dying. Hefty fines and criminal charges are possible for negligent employers. But NPR and The Center for Public Integrity found that enforcement is weak, even as workers continue to die.

The night before he died, Wyatt Whitebread couldn't stand the thought of going back to the grain bins on the edge of Mount Carroll, Ill.

The mischievous and popular 14-year-old had been excited about his first real job, he told Lisa Jones, the mother of some of his closest friends, as she drove him home from a night out for pizza. But nearly two weeks later he told her he was tired of being sent into massive storage bins clogged with corn.

The commercial grain industry responded to a record number of grain entrapments and deaths in 2010 with more safety videos, publications and training programs.

"Have tragic incidents still happened? Yes," says Jeff Adkisson, who heads the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois. "Are we working to reduce them further? Absolutely."

Randy Gordon, president of the National Grain and Feed Association, sees no need for additional regulations. "The [occupational safety and health] standards, we think, are very adequate to address this danger," he says.

Yet another scandal has hit U.S. Speedskating (USS), which governs the sport with the biggest haul of winter Olympic medals for Team USA.

The USS board announced Monday night that it is investigating allegations of sexual abuse involving short track silver medalist Andy Gabel, now 48, who also once served as president of USS.

"U.S. Speedskating will not tolerate abuse of any kind and we intend to investigate these claims, and any others that arise, thoroughly," the group said in a written statement.

A relatively routine plea hearing in Beckley, W.Va, Thursday, took an unexpected and dramatic turn when a former Massey Energy executive implicated former CEO Don Blankenship in a criminal conspiracy.

It's the first time Blankenship has been publicly named as an alleged conspirator in the ongoing federal criminal investigation of the 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine.

Our investigative reporting colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) continue their look at the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of toxic pollution with a new report scrutinizing the agency's delay in announcing that "even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer."

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