NPR: Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes has been NPR's rural affairs correspondent since March 2003 focusing on the politics, economics, and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reports on stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina and in 2010, he reported from West Virginia on the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. Berkes’ reporting also includes the impact 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 covered seven Olympic games including the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. He 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 has also been 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. 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.

Reporting by Berkes in 1998 helped transform the Olympic bribery scandal from a local story in Utah into a media firestorm and attracted international attention. His ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, and many 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 has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, western water issues, 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, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also trains news reporters, consults with radio news departments, and serves as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Berkes was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University in 1997.

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3:50pm

Wed June 1, 2011
The Two-Way

In About-Face, Massey COO Chris Adkins Will Not Stay After Merger

NPR News has learned that Massey Energy executive Chris Adkins will not be part of the executive team at Alpha Natural Resources following today's merger of the two coal companies.

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11:20am

Wed June 1, 2011
The Two-Way

Massey-Alpha Coal Mine Merger Approved By Shareholders

The shareholders of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources overwhelmingly approved a merger this morning, despite challenges from some large institutional investors and an ongoing controversy about Massey executives moving into the management structure of the merged company.

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2:10pm

Tue May 31, 2011
The Two-Way

Court Documents Allege 'Secret Pact' In Massey Coal Merger

Documents just unsealed in a lawsuit involving the pending merger of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources claim a "secret pact" promised high-level jobs to Massey officials if the company agreed to the takeover.

The Massey officials include several who were directly involved in the management of Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine, where 29 mine workers died in a massive explosion last year, and in the investigation of that disaster.

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11:26am

Tue May 31, 2011
The Two-Way

State Court Declines To Block Massey Merger; Unseals Some Documents

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has declined a request to block Wednesday's expected takeover of coal mine giant Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources.

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4:05pm

Tue May 24, 2011
The Two-Way

Massey Mine Execs Reap Millions In Takeover

Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship gets the biggest share, $86.2 million, according to the analysis.
Alex Wong Getty Images

They were in charge when the nation's worst coal mine disaster in 40 years hit their Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.

They ran a company with a "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm," according to a team of independent investigators who scrutinized that deadly mine explosion.

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6:58pm

Mon May 23, 2011
The Two-Way

Shareholders Make Last-Ditch Attempt To Block Massey Merger

While we were focused last week on the report that severely criticized Massey Energy for the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, the company quietly submitted a document to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that reveals new details about a pending merger with Alpha Natural Resources.

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10:00am

Thu May 19, 2011
Mine Safety In America

Report Blasts Massey For 'Deviance' In Safety Culture

Two officers with the Raleigh County Sheriff's Office stand guard in front of the Upper Big Branch coal mine several days after the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 workers in Montcoal, W.Va.
Mark Wilson Getty Images

The first investigative report about last year's coal mine disaster in West Virginia blames a corporate "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm" for the deaths of 29 Massey Energy mine workers.

The report was produced by an independent team of investigators appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and led by Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who has investigated other mine disasters in the state.

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6:22pm

Mon May 16, 2011
The Two-Way

First Report On Cause Of Mine Disaster Due Thursday

West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB) reports tonight that the first final report on the cause of last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion will be released Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia.

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2:19pm

Tue May 10, 2011
The Two-Way

Utah Immigration Law Goes Into Effect, But Court Hearing Looms

A federal judge will consider blocking implementation of Utah's controversial immigration enforcement law during a hearing that starts this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET.

The law took effect today after civil and immigration rights activists failed to get Utah officials to agree to delay enforcement until after U.S. District Clark Waddoups rules on a plea for a temporary injunction.

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1:18pm

Tue May 10, 2011
The Two-Way

Transcripts Reveal Details, Drama, Troubles Of Mine Disaster Rescue Effort

As we reported here Friday, the release of 1,700 pages of interviews about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster search and rescue effort revealed undue risk to the rescuers.

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9:01pm

Fri May 6, 2011
The Two-Way

Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Rescue Put More Lives At Risk

The 31 mine workers hit by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last year weren't the only people whose lives were at risk that day.

Some of the mine rescuers who tried to find the disaster's victims say their lives were also endangered by a reckless mine rescue effort.

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4:05pm

Thu May 5, 2011
The Two-Way

Massey Walks Out Of Discussion Of Sealing Mine Accident Site

A representative of coal mine owner Massey Energy walked out of a meeting Thursday that was to focus on the company's plans to seal off portions of its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

An explosion at the mine last year killed 29 mine workers in what is now the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

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10:33pm

Tue May 3, 2011
The Two-Way

Serious Safety Lapses Shut Down Parts of Massey Coal Mine

Federal regulators evacuated coal miners from portions of a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia Sunday after finding two dozen safety violations that could have triggered fires or explosions.

The surprise inspection at Massey's Randolph mine in Boone County, W. Va., resulted in 20 "withdrawal" orders for excessive coal dust, weak water sprayers on mining equipment, illegal use of mining machines and failure to properly ventilate areas being mined.

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5:43pm

Fri April 29, 2011
The Two-Way

Massey Energy Wants To Seal Upper Big Branch Coal Mine

Originally published on Fri April 29, 2011 6:52 pm

The site of last year's deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia may be abandoned and sealed-off, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

29 coal miners died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine a year ago in the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades.

"Massey Energy has indicated it wants to seal the UBB mine," says MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere. "A meeting is set for May 5 to discuss the plan for sealing the mine."

Massey has yet to respond to NPR's request for comment.

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4:55pm

Fri April 22, 2011
The Two-Way

FBI To Mine Disaster Families: You May Be Federal Crime Victims

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette confirmed a story today that had been rumored for months: The FBI has sent letters to the families of the 29 victims of last year's deadly coal mine disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia.

"As you may be aware, the FBI has instituted an investigation into various activities at UBB in an effort to determine whether any federal crimes occurred," the letter says. "In connection therewith, you may be a victim of a Federal crime."

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8:07pm

Thu April 21, 2011
The Two-Way

Report: Idaho Mine With Trapped Miner Lacks Modern Communications

As workers continue to blast through solid rock to try to reach an Idaho silver miner missing in a cave-in, reporter Jessica Robinson of the Northwest News Network has produced a fascinating story about the antiquated communication technology used in the Lucky Friday mine. (We've posted the audio at the top of this post.)

"So you're working more than a mile below the surface of the Earth, and there's a cave in," Robinson begins. "How do you let someone know you're alive?"

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2:39pm

Thu April 21, 2011
The Two-Way

Still No Sign Of Missing Silver Miner At Site Of Idaho Cave-in

Here's a quick update on the search for 53-year-old Larry Marek, who has been missing more than a mile underground since a cave-in last Friday at Hecla Mining Company's Lucky Friday silver mine in Mullan, Idaho:

-- Workers are blasting through solid rock to reach the area behind the cave-in.

-- They've progressed 90 feet since Monday night, but have 130 feet to go.

-- A second rescue tunnel is proposed.

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9:48am

Wed April 20, 2011
The Two-Way

Mine Co. Gives Families Of West Virginia Victims Deadline For Settlements

The families of the 29 victims of last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion now have until June 1 to accept $3 million settlement offers from mine owner Massey Energy.

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12:40pm

Tue April 19, 2011
The Two-Way

Rescuers Trying To Reach Idaho Miner Forced To Take Longer Route

Falling rock and the ongoing threat of more rock falls have forced rescuers to give up on the direct route to 53-year-old Larry Marek, who has been trapped in an Idaho silver mine since Friday.

Rescuers had been trying to dig through the rubble that fills a mine tunnel more than a mile underground. But a relatively small, remotely-controlled mucking machine was only able to make 40 feet of progress in three days.

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11:31am

Sat April 16, 2011
Around the Nation

Mine Execs Get Key Roles Despite Safety Problems

A top Massey Energy executive who presided over the company while it compiled some of the most criticized safety records in the coal mining industry will jointly manage the main safety program at Alpha Natural Resources if the two companies merge as expected.

That's one of the merger management shifts announced late Friday by Alpha that ensures key roles for several Massey executives in the combined company.

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6:38pm

Wed April 13, 2011
The Two-Way

First Guilty Plea In Mine Disaster Criminal Probe

A former foreman for Massey Energy has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the federal criminal investigation of last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia.

Thomas Harrah, 45, admits in a plea agreement (see below) to faking the foreman's credentials he used at the Upper Big Branch mine and then lying about it to federal agents.

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7:48am

Sat April 9, 2011
Mine Safety In America

Questions Remain Year After W. Va. Mine Explosion

One year ago tonight, mine rescuers discovered the remains of the last four missing coal miners deep inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

There had been hope that the four had made it to refuge chambers and were still alive. Optimistic rescuers carried four sets of breathing apparatus with them, hoping they would be used to bring the miners safely to the surface. The bodies of 25 other miners were found four days earlier.

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