The Taoshi tailings dam failure, 2008

On 8th September 2008, at 8:00 hrs, a mud and mine debris wiped out in just a few minutes the little mining centre of Taoshi, in the city of Linfen, in Xiangfen County, China. 128 persons were confirmed dead, but hundreds more were missing.

Bulldozers and 2,000 workers and firefighters continued to search with little hope, while anger was growing over a man-made disaster that could have been avoided.

The residents complained that hundreds were “missing”, and accused the state-run television, radio, and press outlets of “lying” to minimize the disaster. Meanwhile, hundreds of police officers “monitored” the area, possibly to block protests or the arrival of too many foreign journalists.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao personally ordered the identification and prosecution of everyone responsible. According to the state news agency Xinhua, the secretary of the local communist party was dismissed, together with the head of the village and two Xiangfen safety officials, for “a failure with hidden and undetected dangers for safety”.

The landslide pulled down a deposit of waste from the Tashan iron mine, generating an avalanche of tons of debris, stones, and mud, three storeys high and 600 metres wide. Now there are questions over why the mine waste was stored above the people’s homes, and the owner of the mine was arrested along with eight others.

Mr Kong Zhaohua, whose home was miraculously spared, told the South China Morning Post “This is not a natural disaster. This is purely a man-made disaster. The mine owner was greedy, officials corrupt and the voice of people never heard. Villagers have protested over the danger of the reservoir for years. We have warned the safety officials of Xiangfen County that each time it rained sand and mud came down with water. But officials checked the area several times saying they were satisfied”.

Responsibility for the accident goes back years. “The reservoir”, Kong continued, “was abandoned and sealed by a state-owned mining company many years ago. After the state-owned business went bankrupt, private businessmen took over”.

Mr Wang Dexue, deputy chief of the state administration for workplace safety, said on television that “an illegal company was using the abandoned dump to get rid of its production waste”. The national media were talking about a “story seen before”, with disdain for the laws and basic safety measures in order to foster rapid industrialization, and accused the local governments of overlooking safety in the mines, where 3,800 people died in 2007.

Linfen was affected by many industrial “accidents”, with more than 200 people killed in less than two years. On January 20, 2007, a gas explosion in an illegal mine in the county of Fenxi killed 20 people, while in December 6, more than 100 people died and 18 were wounded in another explosion at a mine in the county of Hongdong. On March 28, at the coal mine in Yujialing, a gas explosion killed 32 persons, and in May 2008 another explosion at the Pudeng mine claimed 28 victims. Each time, thorough investigations were carried out, and reassurances were given that safety measures would be stepped up in the area. Then, on September 8, the wall of debris fell.

AsiaNews/Agencies – September 11, 2008

Chronology of major tailings dam failures