As the mountain of debris grew, so did the warnings.
The construction dump on the outskirts of Shenzhen was prone to dangerous erosion, an environmental impact report said. The expanding piles of waste presented a “crisis,” a Shenzhen newspaper wrote. Even truck drivers who dumped tons of debris and displaced earth there each day recalled a pang of anxiety as they watched the pile swell.
But the alarms got little attention until the accumulation of building waste collapsed here, burying homes and factories, and forcing Chinese officials, investigators, journalists and families waiting for news of the 76 still missing to ask: If so many saw the risks, why was nothing done?
“Everyone seems to have some of the responsibility,” said Liang Jianping, a migrant worker in Shenzhen who was hoping for word of his missing cousin, a worker in a factory near where the disaster struck Sunday.
“The officials, the companies, the truck drivers, they were all here, they saw what was happening,” Liang said. “But there were no safety assurances. Everyone should share some of the blame, I think.”
As of early today, authorities confirmed that they had recovered only two bodies from the dense red earth and mud — up to 32 feet deep — that swamped an area equivalent to more than 70 U.S. football fields.
More bodies are likely to be recovered in the coming days, and officials in Shenzhen appeared prepared to blunt public ire by moving against the company that operated the dumpsite. A Chinese news report said a deputy general manager had been taken away by police.
But survivors, families of the missing and even China’s usually shackled news media appeared to demand more this time than the ritualized arrests and convictions that follow disasters here. Some said there had to be a deeper reckoning with the hazards created by China’s once breathless sprint for prosperity, which has been a hallmark of Shenzhen’s expansion.
“They were dumping dirt here day and night,” said one displaced resident. He gave only his surname, Zhang, fearing reprisal if he spoke to foreign media. “We complained, but the government turned a blind eye,” he said, while he and his family waited to be put on a bus to a hotel arranged by the government.
“I’m not saying that they could have seen this coming, but they could see the problems, they were obvious,” Zhang said.
“This is not just a problem for Shenzhen, but a problem for all of China,” said Yuan Hongping, an associate professor at Southwest Jiaotong University in Sichuan province who has researched construction waste disposal methods in south China.
“The biggest problem is that there are regulations, but they are not always followed,” he said.
The deadly mound was built to solve another problem, the haphazard dumping of dirt and construction waste in sometimes dangerous or environmentally hazardous ways in Shenzhen, which is trying to shift from a manufacturing hub to a high-tech incubator.
The city has been transformed since the 1980s, with each phase of economic growth bringing a fresh wave of building, demolition and encroachment on farmland. The Guangming New District, the site of the landslide, is on the outskirts of Shenzhen, near the scrappier manufacturing zone of Dongguan. And throughout the district, older, dilapidated factories were being torn down to make way for bigger, more modern plants. A subway is also being built through the district.
Construction waste has been an unwelcome byproduct of that transformation process – here in southern China and in other cities. The rate of construction waste recycling is low in mainland China compared with neighbors like Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. And China’s management of the massive amounts of dirt, broken concrete and other materials is far weaker.
In Guangming New District, the establishment of the dump on the site of a former quarry had been seen as a solution to the growing problem of such waste being dumped illegally at locations around the city. In 2013, after the closing of an overfilled site for receiving construction materials, that situation had become extreme. The police patrolled the city at night to prevent dump trucks from depositing construction waste in parks, drainage ditches or roadways, the state broadcaster CCTV reported at the time.
The dump in the former quarry opened around then. Operation of the site was originally contracted out to Luwei Property Management, which in turn subcontracted the site to another company, Yixianglong Investment. Residents and drivers say that it soon began taking in huge amounts of material, with the din of trucks rattling throughout the night.
The local government promoted the dump at Hong’ao Village in its 2014 work report as part of efforts to provide “strong protection” for “construction waste from the new district’s key projects.”
But concern was growing. In January, an environmental consulting firm, Zongxing Technology, published an assessment warning that erosion at the site was “threatening the safety of hills and slopes.”
Work was suspended “because of previous irregular operation methods,” the environmental assessment said, according to the Legal Daily, a newspaper run by China’s Ministry of Justice. But how long the suspension lasted is unclear.
Last October, The Shenzhen Evening News newspaper published a lengthy investigation about the city’s overwhelming amounts of construction waste.
“Shenzhen’s urban renewal and rapid infrastructure construction have also brought grave problems with disposal of construction waste,” the article said. “Many cities have had problems with the secret transport and dumping of building waste across jurisdictions, and it has also created a business in illegal disposal sites.”
Trucks were still dumping soil days before the landslide Sunday morning, according to drivers and neighbors around the Hong’ao Construction Waste Dump.
At the office of Luwei Property Management, the company contracted to operate the site, managers avoided answering questions, but an office manager handed out copies of documents, including what she said was the two-page contract with the subcontractor, Yixianglong. She gave only her surname, Zeng.
The document indicated that Yixianglong paid 750,000 renminbi (about $115,000) to assume operation of the dumping site. Zeng said that as far as she knew, the two companies had not done business before.
“If there are safety accidents or other major contingencies during operations,” Yixianglong would shoulder all responsibility, the July 2013 agreement says.
On Tuesday, police led away a deputy general manager of Yixianglong and took a computer and documents from the company’s offices, China National Radio reported on its website. Reuters said one of its reporters saw the police at two Yixianglong offices Tuesday.
Shenzhen now has at least eight sites that receive construction waste. Dumpsite operators make money on each load they receive, creating an incentive for high intake — and to ignore restrictions.
Practices followed in neighboring Hong Kong, like raising fees to encourage the reuse of materials and monitoring trucks with GPS to prevent illegal dumping, have been considered in Shenzhen but not widely put into place, said Yuan, the construction waste expert.
At the disaster site in Hong’ao Village, whose name means red hollow, trucks continued to move piles of ocher earth, this time away from the massive spill to other collection points around the city.
Until a few days ago, Wang Shanjie, a stocky Hunanese truck driver, made a living hauling tons of dirt and debris from building sites to the Hong’ao dumpsite. On Tuesday, he was undoing his work, one of hundreds of truck drivers who were hauling away the same dirt while rescuers searched for survivors swallowed up by it.
“My personal view is that it had to collapse sometime,” Wang said as he waited his turn to enter the disaster site. “Even we were afraid.”
But he shrugged at questions about who was responsible.
“I don’t know what to think,” he said. “We brought the dirt here, and now we have to haul it out.”