Local govts bear responsibility for failure to prevent Atami mudslide

Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/Handout via REUTERS
Members of Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) and rescue workers help residents evacuate from the site of a mudslide caused by heavy rain at Izusan district in Atami, Japan, in this handout photo taken by JSDF on July 3, 2021 and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan on July 4, 2021.

Local governments bear heavy responsibility for failing to avert terrible harm, as they were aware 10 years ago of the danger posed by a soil mound that is believed to have caused a fatal mudslide. It is necessary to strictly examine where the fault lies.

Regarding the mudslide that occurred in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July this year, the city and prefectural governments have released an administrative document concerning the creation of the soil mound near the point where the disaster began when the land started to collapse.

The mudslide killed 26 people and left one missing. About 130 buildings were damaged. As the mudslide is believed to have been caused by a massive soil mound that exceeded prefectural government standards, it is only natural for the authorities to publish the document and explain the developments regarding the soil mound.

According to the document, there have been several collapses at the site since 2007, when a developer submitted plans for the soil mound to the city, and the prefectural and municipal governments repeatedly provided guidance to the developer.

In 2010, the city government directed the developer to stop carrying soil to the area because a collapse of the soil mound “could endanger the lives and property of residents.” In 2011, the city government, after consulting on the matter with the prefectural government, also decided to issue an order to the developer based on a prefectural ordinance.

However, the city government decided not to issue the order for reasons including that the developer had started construction work to prevent a collapse. But in the end, the construction work was suspended and the soil mound was left in a dangerous state. The question should be asked as to why the prefectural and city governments allowed the mound to remain as it was.

Bereaved families and others have sued the developer and the landowners for damages. Atami Mayor Sakae Saito said, “Including the responsibility of the administration, the aspect of being a man-made disaster cannot be denied.” The local governments cannot escape responsibility as they were aware of the danger, but did nothing to prevent it.

The prefectural government said it will examine how it and the city government handled the issue, with the involvement of experts. It is important to conduct a thorough investigation.

Accidents involving soil mound collapses have occurred across the country. The amount of soil left over from construction and demolition work is far greater than the amount used mainly for residential land development. This is one of the reasons for the increase in unsafe mounds.

Although the disposal of debris and wood waste is regulated under the waste disposal law, the law does not cover surplus soil because it is intended to be reused. In addition, as each local government has enacted its own ordinances that vary on how surplus soil should be handled, it is said that surplus soil tends to be sent to areas with less strict regulations.

It is highly likely that soil mounds will continue to be created from surplus soil that has nowhere else to go. In order to eliminate inappropriate disposal of surplus soil, it is essential for the central government to establish a legal system and strengthen regulations.

In response to the latest mudslide, the central government intends to inspect 30,000 to 40,000 locations nationwide, including highly dangerous soil mounds and large-scale development projects, and to ask the relevant parties to take action, such as removing soil mounds if they are dangerous.

In recent years, torrential rains have caused damage in various parts of the country. Conducting inspections and implementing countermeasures swiftly will lead to the prevention of damage from landslides.