Howard Berkes Wins November Sidney for Series on Mining Industry | Hillman Foundation

Howard Berkes Wins November Sidney for Series on Mining Industry

December 15, 2010

NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that NPR Rural Correspondent Howard Berkes has won the November Sidney Award for a seven-month-long investigation into the activities of Massey Energy. The coal production company owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 mine workers died in April in an explosion, and the Freedom Mine in Pike County, Kentucky, for which the U.S. Department of Labor recently sought its first ever federal injunction to shut down a highly hazardous coal mine.

Berkes findings include:

  • The Freedom Mine received two hundred federal citations this year classified as “serious and substantial,” according to Mining Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) records. Fifty are listed as an “unwarrantable failure” to comply with mine safety law, meaning they knew there was a violation and didn’t fix it or should have known.
  • Massey has admitted under-reporting injuries by more than 30 percent according to Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith.
  • Court documents and state and federal records obtained by NPR cite persistent safety violations involving accumulations of flammable and explosive coal and coal dust, the threat of rock falls, problems with ventilation or air flow in the mine, hazardous electrical equipment, and inadequate emergency evacuation procedures.
  • Mining companies routinely appeal MSHA fines and it can take years for those appeals to be resolved. Right now, more than 18,000 citations and fines are waiting for administrative court action.

Sidney Award Judge Charles Kaiser said, “The fine detail of Berkes’ work and his determination in staying on this story was critical in keeping the issues fresh in the minds of all those involved in the process of mine safety reform.”

On December 1st, Massey announced it would close Freedom Mine number one, before a Federal Court had given the Labor Department the authority to seize it. Two days later, embattled Massey CEO Don Blankenship announced his retirement which came with, as Berkes reported, a $12 million-plus golden parachute which was in addition to the $18 million Blankenship earned in 2009.  This is despite the fact that, as Berkes explains, “Blankenship presided over Massey while it amassed thousands of safety citations, violations and orders, close to $13 million in fines, and the scrutiny of civil and criminal investigators after the explosion in April that killed 29 mine workers at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine.”

Berkes spearheaded a team of NPR journalists which included deputy managing editor of investigations Susanne Reber, producer Robert Benincasa, and reporter Frank Langfitt.  Langfitt and Berkes were partners on the story for several months, until Langfitt became NPR’s East Africa correspondent.  Berkes did a dozen on-air stories for NPR about Massey, and wrote or co-wrote another fifteen pieces for the radio network’s website. Besides his NPR colleagues, Berkes also acknowledged his journalistic debt to Ken Ward Jr., the dean of American mining reporters, who runs Coal Tattoo, the definitive mining website of the Charleston Gazette of West Virginia.

Berkes, 56, has been NPR’s rural correspondent since 2003.  Based in Salt Lake City, he focuses on the politics, economics and culture of rural America.  In 2005 he was part of the NPR team which covered Hurricane Katrina. He has reported on seven different Olympic Games, and he was part of the NPR team which won a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

A 1998 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Berkes also trains reporters, consults with radio news departments and serves as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Berkes has been a member of AFTRA since 1982. 

For an interview with Berkes about his story, click here.

photo credit: Stephen Voss
Interview with Howard Berkes

NOVEMBER, 2010

NPR Rural Correspondent Howard Berkes discusses his seven-month-long investigation into the activities of coal production company Massey Energy, whose serious and consistent safety violations recently led the U.S. Labor Department to seek an unprecedented injunction to shut down one of its mines.

1. How did the story about Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine Number One fit into NPR’s ongoing investigation of mine safety?

The safety record of the Freedom Mine and the Labor Department’s interest in that mine came to my attention during NPR’s ongoing investigation of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in April. Both Freedom and Upper Big Branch are owned and operated by Massey Energy. I had learned that Freedom was targeted for the first ever attempt to use the toughest enforcement tool the Labor Department possesses for coal mines with repeated and persistent safety violations. Using the federal and West Virginia Freedom of Information Acts, and federal records that were already public, I gathered hundreds of pages of documents about the mine, which indicated dangerous conditions underground that mine management failed to systematically correct even after repeated warnings, hundreds of violations, citations, orders and fines, and management’s promises to do better. 

The record at Freedom raises important questions about Massey Energy’s insistent claims that safety is its number one priority. It also raises questions about the Labor Department’s failure to use this enforcement tool before. For 33 years, the agency has had the power to haul coal mining companies into federal court and seek judicial seizure and supervision of coal mines with horrendous safety records and a failure to respond to other regulatory sanctions. The Labor Department only moved on Freedom because of the scrutiny its mine safety regulation has been under since the Upper Big Branch disaster. And Freedom now becomes the test case of whether this enforcement tool will actually work.

I had been looking into Freedom so long that we had analysis, data and perspective ready to go when the case was finally filed.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

It was clear that this was an old and dangerous mine with the type of rock structure that was especially susceptible to roof falls. There were eight roof falls since the Labor Department targeted Freedom for federal court action. Internal e-mails obtained by NPR showed it took the agency nearly five months to file the court action after Freedom was identified as “a test case” by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. One of the rock falls during this period would have killed two miners if they hadn’t been away from their work area due to a power outage. It was also surprising to see the persistent failure of Massey Energy to do what was necessary to make the mine safer. The repeated roof falls, the vast accumulations of explosive coal dust and dangerously high readings of methane gas all made for dangerous conditions. The safety violations, federal and state inspections, citations and face-to-face conversations with mine managers indicated the combination of conditions necessary for another massive explosion like the one that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

The Labor Department said it was going to seek federal court action for other coal mines but that hasn’t happened. That may be due to the fact Massey Energy announced that it would close the mine. The case is still active because it will take Massey months to facilitate a shutdown and the mine will presumably continue to be unsafe for the mine workers dismantling and removing equipment underground. Perhaps the Labor Department is waiting to see how a federal judge responds to arguments made by its own attorneys and Massey Energy. In any case, the coal mine safety data gathered by my colleague Robert Benincasa and our reporting on the persistent safety problems at other mines raises questions about the Labor Department’s failure to file more cases.

Also, I’m not sure the agency would have filed the Freedom case if I hadn’t been so persistent in asking questions, seeking documents and seeking interviews with agency officials (none of which were granted) about Freedom’s record and the agency’s intentions. The Labor Department knew I was looking into Freedom. The agency knew I had the internal e-mails and it knew I knew the mine had been targeted. Its failure to file a case would have been the subject of an NPR story.

Since the story and the Labor Department’s action, long-time Massey CEO Don Blankenship announced he was leaving the company. Freedom was a short drive from his office in Belfry, Kentucky, and he conducted a safety briefing himself at the mine the week before the Labor Department acted. It may be that the Freedom story and case helped the Massey Board recognize that Massey’s safety record is an ongoing public relations problem and that Blankenship may be part of the public relations problem. That’s a lot of baggage for a prospective new owner and Massey Energy has acknowledged the board is considering selling the company. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting suggests Blankenship left because he opposed a sale. It’s possible that Freedom helped underscore the safety issues and regulatory and public relations exposure at a sensitive time.

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

The fact that we can supplement our radio stories with web stories, maps, charts and additional data gives our radio listeners and web readers the opportunity to read what we couldn’t fit in the radio piece. NPR is very aggressive in using web resources to supplement the natural limitations of radio. “Quotes” are more powerful when we hear them on the radio but there is a limit to the complexity a radio story can provide. Using both the web and radio as complementary platforms for these stories gives us the chance to include more of what we learn.

5. Do you expect the actions of the Department of Labor to have any long-term effect on the mining industry or Massey Energy?

That remains to be seen. The industry, Massey Energy, the regulators, coal miners, the administration and the rank and file mine inspectors underground are all waiting to see whether a federal judge will accept this regulatory role. This is unprecedented and, as my Freedom story notes, there is great risk. If a federal judge rejects this role or rejects the Labor Department’s arguments about the mine, the agency may be reluctant to ever use the enforcement action again. Mining companies would then have no incentive to change what they do now, which is to contest thousands of citations, violations, orders and fines. Persistent resistance to mine safety regulation will likely continue without tougher enforcement. Just last week, Congress failed to enact tougher mine safety regulations. The Freedom case and story help draw attention to the failures of the existing regulatory system. It’s too early to say whether the conditions at Freedom and the attempt to get federal court supervision will change anything.

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