Howard Berkes | St. Louis Public Radio

Howard Berkes

Billy Doyle Walker loved working in the sky. He used to say he could see forever, perched high up communications towers as he applied fresh paint.

Three years ago, working halfway up a 300-foot steel tower at the LBJ Ranch, the panoramic view included the rolling green hills and meadows of the Texas Hill Country. The tower was used by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to communicate with the White House.

The inspector general of the Labor Department is conducting an audit of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's handling of delinquent mine safety penalties.

The tattoos on Dennis Whedbee's left arm describe what he lost when the North Dakota oil rig where he was working blew out in 2012. There's an image of a severed hand spurting blood, framed by the word "LOST" in block letters and the date: "9-23-12."

The message underscores Whedbee's frustration with a workers' compensation system in which benefits and access to benefits have changed in North Dakota and across the country.

"I lost a hand at work and this is workman's comp," Whedbee, 53, says at his home in Pennsylvania. "Give me what I deserve. I deserve a hand."

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children's names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

Workers injured on the job are supposed to get guaranteed medical care and money to live on. Employers and their insurance companies pay for that.

And in return, employers don't get sued for workplace accidents. But this "grand bargain," as it's called, in workers' compensation, seems to be unraveling.

Dennis Whedbee's crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, N.D.

It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrick hand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.

From Acadia in Maine to Zion in Utah to the North Cascades in Washington, America's 401 national park areas have gates blocking entrance roads.

The last remaining campers and hotel guests in the parks must leave Thursday, and park rangers will patrol to keep others out.

The national parks "belong to the American people, and the American people should have the right to come in," says National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. "But the only way I can protect these places during this period is to shut them down."

The National Security Agency won't say exactly when it will fully rev up its newest and biggest data farm in the Salt Lake City suburb of Bluffdale, Utah. There will be no "grand opening" or celebratory barbecue outside the sprawling facility, which is five times the size of the Ikea down the road.

But, according to NSA spokeswoman Vanee' Vines, "We turn each machine on as it is installed, and the facility is ready for that installation to begin."

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.

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.

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.

As Mitt Romney and President Obama get ready for their second debate, a new bipartisan survey shows a surge for Romney in a key voter group following their first debate Oct. 3.

The random cellphone and land line poll of 600 likely rural voters in nine battleground states Oct. 9-11 has Romney at 59 percent among the survey's respondents. Obama's support is now down to 37 percent among rural battleground voters, a plunge of 10 points from the actual rural vote in those states four years ago.

American speedskater Simon Cho says what he did was "wrong" when he yielded to what he claims was persistent pressure from a coach to tamper with another skater's blades at the World Short Track Team Championships in Poland last year.

"Tampering with someone's skates is inexcusable," Cho told NPR in his first interview about the incident. "And I'm coming out now and admitting that I did this and acknowledging that what I did was wrong." The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune also spoke with Cho earlier this week after the NPR interview.