China faults management, safety supervision in Shenzhen landslide

Chinese government officials look at search and rescue operations following the December 2015 landslide at an industrial park in Shenzhen. Photo: AP

Chinese authorities blamed shoddy management and lax safety supervision for a landfill collapse in southern China last December that generated a massive mudslide and killed more than 70 people.

Investigators also criticized municipal agencies in the industrial city of Shenzhen for negligence in their regulatory duties, including urban management and industrial-safety inspection, according to a report released late Friday by China’s work-safety agency.

They recommended punishing 110 people—including landfill executives and local officials—and three companies for their roles in the disaster, which killed at least 73 people, left four others missing and caused some 881 million yuan ($132 million) in economic losses.

Friday’s report capped a top-level government probe into a disaster that shocked many in China, partly because it took place in one of the country’s wealthiest and most futuristic cities, fueling fears that rapid development has led to lax enforcement of safety, labor, environmental and other rules.

The landfill in Shenzhen’s Guangming New District had been used for dumping debris from infrastructure projects across the fast-growing suburban industrial zone, where authorities have struggled to cope with mounting construction waste. Its sudden collapse on Dec. 20 sent a wall of mud into a nearby industrial zone, burying factory and dormitory buildings.

Investigators found that the landfill lacked an effective drainage system, resulting in the accumulation of water that saturated and destabilized the debris pile. Excessive dumping exacerbated the problem before the landfill collapsed, they said, ruling out sabotage and inclement weather as causes.

“The construction, operation and management [of the landfill] was extremely haphazard,” the report said. Local officials also erred by unlawfully providing regulatory approvals for the landfill, and were “deficient in their routine supervisory work,” it added.

Investigators found that a government-appointed monitoring firm, Shenzhen J-star Project Management Consultant Co., had documented cracks and signs of sinking at the landfill more than a month before it collapsed. But the local urban-management agency took no action in response to the findings, the report said.

J-Star had also detailed months of safety lapses and sloppy practices at the landfill in a series of inspection reports, and recommended suspending operations at the landfill just four days before the disaster, The Wall Street Journal reported in December.

Investigators said 53 people—including company executives and employees—have been detained for alleged criminal wrongdoing, while another 57 people, mainly municipal officials, were disciplined through administrative measures, including official demerits and warnings. It wasn’t possible to locate these people for comment and it wasn’t clear if any of them had legal representation.

One urban-management official, suspected of taking bribes and abusing his power, committed suicide during investigations, the report said.

Investigators also recommended punishing the landfill operator, a subcontractor, and a construction-design firm by revoking their operating licenses and imposing fines, among other steps.

The landfill operator, Shenzhen Luwei Property Management Co., had illegally subcontracted the entire project to a company called Shenzhen Yixianglong Investment Development Co., the report said. The subcontractor meanwhile failed to conduct site surveys and ran the landfill in a disorganized manner, it added.

Investigators also found that a third company, Guangdong Huaxi Architectural Design Co., had supplied construction blueprints for the landfill without doing any preparation such as design and calculation work.

Attempts to reach the three companies for comment weren’t immediately successful.

The mudslide was among a string of disasters that struck China last year, prompting top-level government probes aimed at assuaging public concerns over industrial safety.

Investigators in December blamed freak weather and poor crew response for a cruise-ship sinking in central China that killed 442 people in June 2015, and still are looking into deadly warehouse explosions in the northeastern city of Tianjin that killed 173 last August.

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