Death Toll Exceeds 30 In Slide Near Chinese Dam

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 24, 2007

BEIJING, Nov. 23 -- The death toll from a landslide near China's controversial Three Gorges Dam rose to more than 30 people after workers clearing the site discovered a bus in the rubble and identified 24 bodies, the New China News Agency reported Friday.

The slide -- one of dozens along 20 miles of riverbank -- occurred Tuesday morning near the entrance to a railway tunnel and a tributary of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir, in central China's Hubei province. Nearly 4,000 cubic yards of rock plunged onto a highway in Badong county, killing a construction worker building a tunnel above the landslide and burying two of his co-workers.

The accident occurred amid growing criticism of the environmental degradation caused by the dam, a massive engineering project completed in May 2006 at a cost of $24 billion. As critics predicted, higher water levels appear to have increased the pressure at the base of the cliffs, causing already unstable ground to give way around the reservoir.

Government officials have insisted that the damage can be controlled and that the benefits of hydropower and flood control far outweigh any environmental damage and the relocation of an estimated 1.2 million people for the project.

But since September, a growing number of engineers, dam officials and environmentalists have been predicting a "catastrophe" unless the central government spends the money to correct erosion and instability caused by the project.

Directing rescue workers at the site Friday, Zhang Xinzhou of the China Railway Tunnel Group said the landslide might be related to changes in the climate. Four days of rain recently may have loosened the rock and earth, he said.

Song Wenjiu, a road maintenance worker who was nearby, told the news agency he heard a loud explosion and was shocked to see steel scaffolding collapse to the ground, along with huge rocks and boulders.

Workers near a makeshift tent that was struck by the falling rocks managed to escape. A worker surnamed Huang, who managed to survive by hanging on to the scaffolding, said he had been reinforcing the ceiling of the Yichang-Wanzhou railway tunnel with other workers when the landslide happened. The stone suddenly became loose and soft and then collapsed, he told the news agency.

Tong Chongde, a spokesman for the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, told reporters Thursday that there had been no injuries or deaths caused by dam-related landslides. The committee has also said that pollution from the project -- including industrial pollution and fertilizer collecting in the backed-up reservoir water -- is "not serious."

Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company