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At Least 70 Missing After Landslide Buries Industrial Park In Southern China


Yesterday morning, a young man was pulled from a wave of red mud and construction waste in Shenzhen, China. His legs were crushed, but he was alive. And he can count himself lucky. More than 70 people are still missing since the landslide there Sunday. An old quarry that had been piled with dirt and construction waste gave out. From pictures of it, it looks like it was a man-made mountain of waste. The landslide engulfed entire buildings. Thousands of rescue workers continue to look for survivors, but the disaster once again raises questions about safety and environmental concerns in China, especially when those concerns conflict with rapid economic growth. Jennifer Turner, who heads the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum in Washington, joins us now. This was a man-made disaster, it seems, that could've been prevented. Why wasn't it prevented?

JENNIFER TURNER: That's the question that actually a lot of citizens in Shenzhen have been asking on social media - very critical of the lack of oversight. And we've seen that the vice mayor and a lot of city officials have been doing press conferences, talking about, you know, not only how the rescue's going but the investigation - more to follow, we assume.

SIEGEL: One could almost say that this mound is one visual measurement of the degree of urbanization and industrialization in China these days.

TURNER: Exactly. I mean, in the next 10 to 15 years, China is going to urbanized another 300 million people. That's as many people in the United States. That many have been urbanized over the past decade. So you have these cities that are just exploding in size, and they're making subways. I mean, Chinese cities - it's been great. They've been expanding their subway systems to be more efficient in moving people around. But you have to put that dirt somewhere. And you used to be able to put it just outside the city borders, but the city borders keep expanding. So the only option to do is to go up.

And the landfills that exist around most of the cities - in Shenzhen, all of the 12 major landfills are going to be full in the next year. There's just no place to put it. So you have many illegal dumps, such as what we saw in this quarry. It evidently had been registered, but its registration was supposed to stop a year ago. And I don't know where the inspectors were, but clearly they were not doing their job.

SIEGEL: But which do you think is more the case here - that there aren't adequate regulations on dumping waste or that regardless of the regulations, you can always bribe someone to get around them.

TURNER: I think it's a little bit of both. Waste has not been the top policy issue in terms of environment. And as you know, I mean, the air pollution and water pollution are much more on the forefront. And so you could say that there could be a bandwidth problem in the government, that they can only deal with so many environmental crises at once but also that these issues of waste is very much a municipal issue. Sometimes, I think, you have cases where the bigger cities pass their waste off to smaller cities and so on and so on.

SIEGEL: When it comes to environmental and safety concerns, is the Chinese government becoming more responsive to the public?

TURNER: They definitely are becoming a lot more responsive. I mean, when I think back - when you think of natural disasters, you know, back, I think, back in the '70s, '60s when there were some major earthquakes, the world never even knew about them. But starting back in 2008 with the Sichuan earthquake, you immediately had national reporting on what was happening.

And it's been pretty amazing to see that even though we're seeing a lot more disasters being reported in China, that the Chinese government steps forward. And in some ways, they have no choice because of the social media. Citizens are out there taking pictures. They're doing their Twitter equivalent on Wei Xin and Weibo, and so it's been really fascinating to see this openness. And I think that the public is less happy if it's just going to be a perfunctory - just arrest the one person on top, and it's gone. The citizens want more accountability from their officials.

SIEGEL: Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson Center China Environment Forum, thanks for talking with us.

TURNER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.