Workers Vanguard No. 1044

18 April 2014


Dozens Killed in Washington State Mudslide

Human Toll of Capitalist Profit

Heavy rainfall was the immediate trigger for the square-mile torrent of mud that buried part of Oso, Washington, on March 22, killing 36 people with eight still unaccounted for. But capitalist profiteering was the real culprit behind this horror.

Despite repeated mudslides dating back at least to 1949, state authorities allowed clear-cut logging to continue at the top of the unstable hill. Scientists repeatedly warned against the removal of the trees, which help anchor the soil in place as well as catch the rain and soak it up from the ground. The hill’s soil, composed of loose sand and gravel atop a layer of clay, was well known to retain water and be prone to collapse. A 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of several red flags raised by experts, warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”

The dangers were so obvious that county officials at one point considered buying up the properties of residents in the area to prevent large-scale loss of life. Instead, it was decided to give real estate interests a free hand to build and sell homes at the base of the hill. Seven homes were constructed after a 2006 landslide on the same hill sent so much mud crashing into the Stillaguamish River that it cut a new channel, posing yet another threat to local residents. Daniel Miller, author of the 1999 report, recalled that instead of observing homes being vacated, he saw carpenters building new ones. “They didn’t even stop pounding nails,” Miller’s colleague commented. “We were surprised.”

Government officials made no systematic effort to warn residents or potential homebuyers of the unsafe conditions. One resident who lost his house declared: “Were we informed of this danger? No, a very emphatic no.” An information campaign would surely have driven down property values in the area and cut into home builders’ profits.

Insurance companies knew the risks. Their standard policies explicitly exclude landslides from insurance coverage. The insurers do offer special policies providing some protection against landslides at exorbitant prices. But there’s a catch: If you live in an area where landslides are a known danger, you probably cannot qualify for the coverage.

Of the 42 homes that were wiped out in last month’s landslide, 30 were primary residences and almost all belonged to low-income families. Most of them are saddled with outstanding mortgages on their destroyed homes, as well as auto and other loans. Having lost everything that they own, these families are now confronted by bankers demanding full repayment of their debts.

A range of proven technologies exists to predict landslides in time to prevent the loss of life. Unstable hillsides almost always begin to slip before major slides occur, with the creepage usually starting slowly and then accelerating as the collapse approaches. A geologist told The Seattle Times (3 April) that by installing sensors on landslide-prone hills to monitor such movements of the soil, Switzerland has successfully evacuated residents of alpine valleys in advance of major slides. Such life-saving instruments were not installed on the hill above Oso and are rarely used elsewhere in the state, because they are considered too costly.

This deadly landslide was an unnatural disaster caused by capitalist indifference to human life. Such inhumanity, characteristic of a system based on the insatiable drive for profit, will continue until workers sweep the capitalists from power and establish their own government.