Probe needs to clearly determine those responsible for Atami mudslide

About four months after a disastrous mudslide killed many local residents in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, police have begun to get down to the task of pursuing criminal responsibility. They need to fully investigate the case to clarify the cause of the mudslide.

In response to complaints from bereaved families in the July disaster, the Shizuoka prefectural police have searched multiple locations related to a real estate agency that developed the area near which the disaster originated when a mound of discarded soil collapsed, as well as the current owner of the land, on suspicion of crimes including professional negligence resulting in death.

According to research by the Shizuoka prefectural government, the real estate agency started to develop the area in 2007 or later and brought in large amounts of earth and sand. After nearby land was sold to the current owner in 2011, related disaster prevention work was left unfinished.

The height of the soil mound just before the collapse was about 50 meters, more than three times the legal standard, making it possible that a collapse would cause serious damage. The prefectural police need to clarify where responsibility lies for the disaster, which claimed 26 lives and left one person missing.

The investigation from here will likely focus on whether the real estate agency and others could have foreseen the danger of the soil mound collapsing due to heavy rain, and whether they could have prevented the mudslide if they had taken appropriate safety measures against a collapse.

It is also necessary to investigate the safety measures of the prefectural and Atami city governments.

The prefectural and municipal governments said that they repeatedly gave instructions because a series of small collapses occurred, after the real estate agency submitted a plan for the landfill project. The city called on the real estate agency to stop depositing earth and sand there in 2010 over concerns that a collapse of the soil mound could endanger local residents, and decided to issue an order to that effect in 2011. However, for unknown reasons, the order was not made.

In the end, the soil mound was left in a dangerous state, leading to the collapse. The Atami municipal government said there was a possibility that it was a “man-made disaster,” with the local government among the parties responsible. Why they all dealt with the issue as they did is a question that cannot be avoided.

The police intend to analyze the seized materials and ask for detailed information from the developer, the land owner and local government officials, among others. Clarifying events leading up to the collapse, the cause and where the responsibility lies should help prevent a recurrence.

The bereaved families and others have filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the developer and others. From now, both criminal and civil responsibility will be pursued.

There is an urgent need for legislation to regulate such uncontrolled soil mounds. Collapses of soil mounds have occurred one after another in various parts of the country, and there have been losses of life. Although some local governments have enacted ordinances to regulate soil mounds, there is criticism that standards vary and penalties are light.

The central government is currently inspecting 30,000 to 40,000 sites nationwide, including high-risk soil mounds. In order to protect the lives of residents, it is important for the central government to establish uniform national standards and write them into law.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 5, 2021.