Sinclair Lecturer Recalls Investigation into Upper Big Branch Disaster

By Kay Bechtold

Washington State Convention Center, Seattle, Wash. (June 6, 2017)—NPR’s Howard Berkes, the latest reporter to present the annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting at AIHce EXP, addressed conference attendees via a state-of-the-art video link with NPR’s studio in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning. The 35-year NPR veteran spoke to a packed room about the investigative projects that spurred AIHA’s Social Concerns Committee to invite him to speak, including his reporting on the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. Berkes described how the language used in news reports, agency reports, by company officials, and others to describe workplace accidents and deaths often doesn’t accurately capture what really happened to the workers involved.

“To me, they sometimes gloss over the horror and the responsibility,” Berkes said. “The word ‘killed’ didn’t adequately express what happened to those miners at Upper Big Branch. Police reports, coroners’ reports, agency reports—just about everything about these incidents is sanitized, bureaucratized.”

That feeling helped turn his attention to mine safety and workplace safety. Berkes and Frank Langfitt, a colleague at NPR, traveled to the “hollers” of West Virginia, where they knocked on doors and gathered names and phone numbers, trying to talk to people who worked at Massey Energy and at Upper Big Branch. They also set out to speak with former mine inspectors and mine safety regulators.

“We were seeking the kind of information that people believed would get them in trouble,” Berkes said, explaining that some miners they spoke with feared that they might lose their jobs if they went on record. They were also afraid that, if they talked with reporters, another member of their family might lose their job by association. Berkes heard talk of a “blacklist” kept by mining companies.

The miners’ fear was not misplaced; Berkes told attendees about one particular miner who he couldn’t convince to go on the record. Right out of high school, this miner was already making $70,000 a year and had a good house, a nice pick-up truck, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Without coal mining, Berkes said, some miners would be lucky to be hired as a Walmart greeter or someone clearing tables at restaurants.

“I was this interloper asking too many questions,” Berkes recalled. “I was thrown off porches with politeness and regrets.”

He did finally have some luck getting former regulators to talk with him. Later, after gently persisting and appealing to the lawyers involved, Berkes was able to connect with some family members of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. He told AIHce attendees about Judy Jones Petersen, a physician who lost her brother Dean Jones in the explosion, and who was convinced that the real story about what happened to those miners wasn’t being told. She insisted on viewing her brother’s remains at the funeral home, wanting to know “from a scientific point of view how much force was generated” on her brother. When she looked, Petersen didn’t recognize her brother, who was farthest away from the blast on April 5, 2010.

“The blast could not have been that powerful, that far from its source, if there hadn’t been a lot of coal dust in that mine,” Berkes said, explaining that the dust acted as an accelerant, triggering a series of blasts that went back and forth, turning corners through the mine.

Coal dust is supposed to be cleaned up after every shift, Berkes continued. But it wasn’t happening at Upper Big Branch.

During his time investigating the disaster, Berkes also found that coal mines were often allowed to keep operating despite injuries, violations, and millions of dollars in fines. His reporting helped spur the Mine Safety and Health Administration—“for the first time in a long time”—to begin to close mines that didn’t pay their penalties, at least temporarily. Berkes’ investigation also confirmed the existence of a federal criminal investigation of the disaster by the FBI.

But “nobody’s interested in a story about data—that gets tough to tell on the radio,” Berkes said of the reporting that was focused more on the regulatory system and numbers from MSHA. “We worked hard to humanize that data.”

Berkes ended his presentation by urging the industrial hygienist and occupational health and safety professionals in the audience to let reporters know when they see trends that seem out of the ordinary.

“The most important thing is to communicate with us, talk to us,” Berkes said. “We can tell stories in ways you cannot, but you possess the knowledge and information, and you have the data and reports."

Berkes noted that it’s become increasingly difficult for people working at federal and state agencies to talk with reporters, but he explained that there are ways reporters can protect the identities of their sources.

Berkes has also reported on other issues in coal mine health and safety and failures in grain bin safety that have resulted in record levels of worker deaths. 

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.