Friday, November 26, 2010

Why Set a Novel in a Country Like Papua New Guinea?

     Aside from a few old geezers who fought the Japanese in Papua New Guinea sixty five years ago, and the occasional missionary or tourist who has been there, who cares what happens in a mountainous jungle island, far beyond the exotic lagoons and hula dancers of Hawaii? Why complicate a plot with strange people, odd customs, and geography?
      One reason is, there's a market for such books . Some people like to read about the Navaho Tribal Police, or the Ladies' Number 1 Detective Agency of Botswana, or Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police, all of which have become popular series.
      A second reason is, an unfamiliar country gives many opportunities for unexpected twists in the plot. In Papua New Guinea, the setting of my latest crime story, the majority of the population are very poor, without much schooling. They are vulnerable to exploitation by timber merchants or mining companies who destroy the forests on which the people's lives depend. They are willing to listen to anyone with a get-rich-quick scheme, only to find out that someone else gets rich at their own expense.
      In such a country, an honest cop or government official can stand out, especially if the writer can make his character believable as well as unexpected. As the story develops, and the real problems of the country evolve, whole new opportunities for extending the story to a series arise. When I started this story ten years ago, PNG had little to offer the world except scenery and some gold and copper to mine. But now in the past year, PNG suddenly turns out to possess some of the largest fields of natural gas in the world. International gas and oil companies are investing 15 billion dollars over the next several years to produce 6.6 million tons of liquified natural gas per year to export to Asian markets. How will corrupt and inexperienced government officials handle this windfall?
There's the foundation for yet another story about police officer - now Inspector - Jason Kerro.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Samana Incident

Lieutenant Jason Kerro, Royal Papua New Guinea Police, thought the early morning report of an armed attack on the foreign translators' base at Samana was an ordinary robbery attempt by the "rascal gangs" that roamed the country's Highlands. No one in town had recognized these intruders, or knew where they had come from or had gone. Except that one spoke English with a foreign accent, and had cut the power to the radio station and town switchboard before being driven off by security guards.

Jason suspects a connection with the assault rifles and drugs that have been turning up for sale in nearby Mount Hagen. The word on the streets is that some of the police are taking payoffs from smugglers moving in from Asia, but no one is talking about it; those who did are no longer alive. Jason doesn't know which of his police colleagues he can trust. 
The sponsors of the translators' base, concerned with the safety of the families there, send in a pair of investigators with past experience with Asian drug dealers. George and Vienna Daniels are, to all appearances, short term medical volunteers at Samana's clinic. Jason soon discovers their usefulness as under cover allies in areas beyond his own jurisdiction. The intruders have hidden their trail well, but George and Vienna supply Jason with the edge that opens the case.

Look for it at your local bookstore,or ask them to order it: "The Samana Incident" by Keith Dahlberg. iUmiverse Press, ISBN 978-1-4502-6311-5. Also available on, or from the iUniverse on-line bookstore, In soft cover ($14.95) or e-book format ($9.99)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

The federal government charges its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with protecting human health and the environment. Over the last thirty years it has worked effectively in the North Idaho "Silver Valley" mining area (lead, zinc and silver) to decrease health hazards through covering the site of the lead smelter and zinc refinery, and removal of polluted soil from yards, parks and playgrounds. Blood lead levels rarely exceed the national safety level of 10 micrograms per deciliter nowadays, and free blood tests are still available to those who request them.

Although EPA tells us that human health is no longer at risk from lead, zinc, arsenic and other minerals in the environment, it wants to extend its work to the whole watershed of the Coeur d'Alene River's South Fork, to protect fish and other wildlife, because some species are sensitive to zinc levels that are harmless to humans. The cost of the project, they estimate, will be 1.3 billion dollars, and the duration will be 30 to 90 more years or longer.

Their premise has some logic. Shoshone County, Idaho, has been a major mining area for 125 years, with over 300 mine sites, most of them small and no longer operating. Some of the mine tailings and ground water sources still have significant mineral content. EPA wants to funnel all those sources (a volume estimated at 30,000 gallons per minute, or about 5% of the river's volume) into the EPA's Central Treatment Plant at Kellogg, which currently handles about 1/10th that volume. There, the metals are precipitated out by raising the water's pH and trapping the metals in a flocculent sludge with alum. The purified water, no longer acidic, is put back into the river. EPA pumps the sludge to a 2-acre pit on top of the nearby Central Impoundment Area (CIA).

The CIA is a 200+ acre collection of tailings from the Bunker Hill Mine (lead, zinc and silver) which the EPA covered over with plastic sheeting and then laid down clean soil and grass on top of that, to prevent recontamination of the surrounding cleaned-up areas. All of the CI Area is sealed off except for the sludge pit destined to take water pollutants from the whole South Fork drainage basin. The pit has no plastic lining or anything else to prevent fluid from the sludge from draining downward into the original alluvial plain and aquifer that feeds into the adjacent South Fork River.

When I asked EPA how fast seepage of the sludge liquid occurred, EPA estimated 9 gallons per minute; the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimated 35 gpm. A couple of 5 gallon bucketsful seeping downward into the soil doesn't sound too alarming until you multiply 10 gpm x 60 minutes x 24 hrs x 365 days and get a figure of over 5 million gallons each of the last 10 years plus five to seven more years before EPA intends to make a new, plastic-sealed sludge pit. When I asked the metal content of this seepage, both DEQ and EPA said they didn't know. Probably most of the pollutants remain in the sludge, but before I risked re-contaminating the lakes and river downstream, I'd try and find out. Five million gallons a year wouldn't have to carry much.

One of EPA's dilemmas is finding places to deposit the lead/zinc-polluted soil they have dug up from house lawns all over the valley. There are quite a few uninhabited gulches available, several of which they have already used, but the present repository they are placing in the middle of the river's flood plain, next to a large marsh inhabited by the very birds and fish they are trying to protect. The Coeur d'Alene River floods every few years; a flood in a tributary in 1974 took out the eastbound lanes of Interstate 90, not to mention houses. A flood sweeping away the contaminated soil could undo the EPA's last 20 years of cleanup. EPA appears unconcerned

And then there is the cost—1.3 billion dollars. The so-called Asarco Trust Fund, from fines and settlement with the mining companies contains about 0.45 billion, and EPA is quick to point out that it can generate twenty million in interest (but only if they don't spend the principal.) Other than that, and some of EPA's own budget, the only source of funds would from Idaho citizens' taxes. Raising $ 900 million from about 2 million people is allegedly legal, but I question its morality, spending that much on the health of a few thousand fish and birds when the state is cutting back on funding for schools, medical care, roads, and other human needs

There wil be a public meeting August 4th where EPA will once again present its case, and another on August 9 when Idaho legislators and business people will present theirs. I hope common sense will prevail. Not always the case in politics.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Learning from Disaster Response

DAY 5 OF THE HAITI QUAKE: CNN and other news media are doing a good job of reporting both good and bad events in Port au Prince. All disaster responses seem desperately slow,at first, given the critical 2 or 3 day time window for saving lives. But response to this mega-disaster is actually proceeding about as fast as can be expected, given the number of victims and the limited harbor, road and airport facilities.

Several issues, however, seem to have got less attention than needed:

Security: Rumors are inevitable, but common sense suggests that a medical team should not abandon its patients for unidentified "security" issues. CNN's Dr. Sanji Gupta should be congratulated for taking the initiative of staying all night with one hospital's patients until the medical team returned. (When this issue arose in the Cambodian refugee crisis of 1979, Thai military had a dusk to dawn curfew for our medical teams in our camp of 25,000 people. But they let one medical team stay each night in the thousand-bed hospital; fears about our safety proved groundless.)

The response now, at the end of day 5, shows that distribution is improving, but slowly. Water tanker trucks, replenished from decontaminated sources outside the city might be more efficient than passing out 100,000 bottles of water (which represents less than a single drink for each of two million people.

Cranes, bulldozers and helicopters are first priority needs after an earthquake. Flying these in on the first day would seem a higher priority than transporting swarms of officials who want to "see for themselves." Haiti has a second harbor and airport at Cap Haitien, well out of the quake zone. Helicopters could shuttle supplies from there to improvised landing pads almost anywhere in Port au Prince, until the harbor is working. But such plans must be set in motion quickly. Spending the first two days merely considering options means thousands die unnecessarily.

Large rescue plans tend to focus operations in the main population center and work outward from there later. That's where the most people are, of course. But people outside the epicenter starve or die of trauma just as quickly, and in some disasters people beyond the city receive no help until weeks later. (The 2005 quake in Kashmir with 75,000 deaths comes to mind.) Even with bad roads, teams could be sent by helicopter or truck out to secondary population centers.

God bless the local citizens who began rescue operations, with their bare hands in many cases, and who translated from Creole to English or French for newly arriving rescue teams. And bless all the competent and caring people who dropped what they were doing back home and showed up in Haiti to help. Many of you will look back on this as the high point of your career.