14 October 2008

The Lifan landslide – from natural disaster to cover up

Posted by Dave Petley

In China this summer there have been two big mining-related flowslides. The second, at Linfen County in Shanxi Province attracted a great deal of publicity (see my blog reports here and here), not least because of the very high death toll. However, the story of the first, which happened on 1st August at Lifan, also in Shanxi Province, is a great deal more murky, but details are now emerging.

On the day after the slide there were a series of reports that it had occurred and that 11 people had been killed. I picked up a Xinua report for example that stated that:

“More than 100 rescuers are clearing the landslide debris under which 11 people have been confirmed buried in north China’s Shanxi Province. The landslide was in the early hours on Friday at Sigou Village in Loufan County. An initial investigation showed seven houses and11 villagers were buried, according to rescuers. Rescuers were working in shifts with excavators to clear the debris of stone and earth with an estimated volume of more than 100,000 cubic meters. The landslide site has resumed power and communications supply. “

Note that there is no mention here that the failure occurred in the dump from an iron ore mine, and the suggestion is that there was a large-scale and rapid response. In late August to mid September a different picture started to emerge. This suggested that in fact the failure had been a flowslide from an iron ore mine and, more importantly, that there had been a cover-up by the authorities, who had failed to search for a substantially higher number of victims. Over the next few days a recovery operation was launched, and eventually it was ascertained that 44 people had been killed.

So what happened to expose this incident? Well, a Chinese newspaper, the Guangzho Daily, has now published an account together with an interview with the reporter who exposed this event. This interview has been translated and published with photographs here. The reporter, Sun Chunlong published an article in late August pointing out that there had been a cover up. He based the article on an undercover visit to the site in which he compiled a list of 41 victims from family members. It turns out that many of the victims were migrant workers for whom the local authorities seem to have had little regard. He then followed his article with a post on his blog on 14th September in the form of an open letter to the governor of Shanxi province. This letter (which is translated at the end of the article here) came to the attention of the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, who ordered a recovery operation and allowed the new to emerge officially. Between 22nd and 29th September they uncovered many victims, providing a final toll of 41 bodies and six partial remains.

Now, a formal investigation has been launched both into the landslide itself, which is just one of a catalogue of mining-related fatal accidents in China, and of the subsequent cover-up.