In the six years we’ve lived in our house we’ve done some landscaping and in many cases were left with soil that had been removed from the ground. The contractor would always offer to dispose of the dirt for a fee, but we always had them dump it on the adjoining property, which is mostly covered with a bamboo grove. We know this is illegal, because it is not our land, but the plot, which is quite large, already has loads of dead wood and bamboo, and the amount of dirt we leave there is hardly noticeable. Besides, we’ve often helped ourselves to the soil we put there for gardening purposes.
But there is a real problem in Japan of where to put excavated soil resulting from large-scale construction projects. This week, Asahi Shimbun ran a fairly in-depth story that illustrates almost too perfectly this problem.
The article focuses on a 58-year-old regularly employed woman living in the city of Yatomi, which is located in Aichi Prefecture not far from Nagoya harbor. The area she lives in, however, is mostly agricultural: extensive rice paddies interrupted here and there by warehouses and residential houses. The woman’s land is fairly large and used to contain a pond where her father raised goldfish for sale. Apparently, goldfish breeding was a kind of niche industry in the area. But after the father died some years ago, the woman drained the pond with the idea of filling it in and creating her own rice paddy, which she would cultivate after she retired. For years she contemplated this eventuality without ever really acting on it. And then one day in 2017 a man came to her house and gave her his name card, saying he was in the “land development” business. He was looking for places to dispose of soil that had been removed due to construction work “in the mountains,” and specifically mentioned the ongoing maglev shinkansen project that is supposed to connect Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027. He assured the woman that, because the soil was from the mountains, it was “clean.” He seemed to know about her empty pond, and, as an incentive, said that he would take care of all the paperwork required to legally change the pond into a rice paddy and shoulder the cost of that paperwork as well. All she had to do was legally agree to accept the soil.
The woman discussed the matter with her husband and they agreed this was a good opportunity to fulfill their plans to grow rice, so they accepted the man’s offer. By the end of August, the paperwork was completed, and hauling the soil to their property could begin. Now, a different contractor entered the scene, a man from neighboring Mie Prefecture who owned a hauling company. In fact, it was later learned that it was this man, the owner of the hauling company, who had hired the earlier agent to find places where he could dump soil that he had contracted to remove from various construction sites.
Before the hauling started, the woman asked the hauling contractor to limit the amount of soil he would deposit into the empty pond. In order to create an effective paddy structure, the level of the soil should be about 30 cm below that of the adjoining roadway so that it could hold irrigation water for cultivation. The contractor agreed, and at the end of September he began hauling dirt to the pond. By early October, he had already filled the pond to a level that was 30 cm below that of the roadway, and yet he continued dumping dirt into the pond. Several trucks arrived every day laden with soil.
On October 23, the family became worried, and pleaded with the contractor to stop dumping any more dirt into the pond. The contractor assured them that the soil was “soft” and that he would later bring in heavy machinery to press the dirt down to the acceptable level. Meanwhile, the pond filled up and turned into a mound that just kept growing higher. The woman and her husband complained more loudly, but the trucks kept coming. The contractor said that he just needed a “temporary” place to leave the dirt and that later he would move it to another location, but as the couple’s worries intensified, the contractor’s manner became more contentious, and he just stopped answering their calls. At one point, they blocked the entrance to their property, and the contractor threatened them: If you don’t let us in to dump more dirt, we will not remove any of it later. The couple called the police and city authorities, who contacted the contractor saying that he was required to turn the pond into farmland, but the contractor denied he had a legal obligation to do so. A standstill between the city and the contractor ensued.
All this time, the woman’s mother had been recording the license plates of all the trucks that were bringing dirt onto their property, and told Asahi that they were from three prefectures: Aichi, Mie, and Gifu. That meant that the dirt was coming from various construction projects, and not exclusively from “the mountains” as the original agent had said, if, in fact, any of it did come from the mountains. Moreover, there were large pieces of concrete mixed in with the soil.
In June 2018, about 9 months after the soil transfer began, it finally ended. The dump trucks disappeared, and so did the heavy machinery. What was left was a hill, ten meters high, covering 5,100 square meters and containing more than 25,000 cubic meters of dirt. The couple continued to call the contractor but nothing was done, so they finally sued the company in May 2019 in Tsu District Court. They discovered that theirs wasn’t the first lawsuit brought against this particular contractor, and that the dirt that had been brought to their property was, indeed, from various construction sites througout the region. About 1,350 cubic meters, in fact, had come from the site of a major new building that was being constructed by the city of Yatomi. When lawyers contacted the construction company about the removed dirt, the company denied any responsibility, saying they had contracted with another company to dispose of the dirt. In May 2020, Tsu District Court decided in the couple’s favor, saying that the contractor had to pay ¥1.1 million in damages and would have to remove the dirt. The contractor acknowledged the verdict, but told the court that, at the moment, he could not locate an alternative location for the dirt, but that he would continue looking. When Asahi talked to the contractor, he blamed everything on the city government, which had not made provisions for the excavated dirt from their new building. However, he said nothing about his other contracted jobs or other lawsuits. With the contractor stalling for time and getting away with it, the couple asked around to find out how much it would cost to remove the mountain of dirt from their property. The estimate from a third party was ¥77.66 million. They are now suing the construction company that contracted with the hauling company as well as the original agent who persuaded them to accept the dirt.
Asahi points out that dirt and sand resulting from construction projects are not covered by national waste processing regulations, though some local governments may have their own rules. Mie Prefecture, for instance, has always been plagued by dump trucks coming from as far away as the Kanto region to deposit dirt in Mie, so they passed a law only this year that says any landfill that is more than 3,000 square meters in size must apply for and receive permission from the prefecture before any soil is dumped into it. Twenty-four other prefectures have similar rules, and 22 have penalties attached. But Aichi is not one of them, so, for the time being, at least, the couple profiled by Asahi is going to have to live with their mountain, which has drawn complaints from neighbors.
The real problem, of course, is that there are no places to dump soil, especially in an isand country whose economy is based on unfettered construction. The original agent who talked to the couple mentioned the maglev shinkansen as a means of getting their approval, and though it isn’t clear from the article if any of the dirt deposited on their land was actually from the maglev project, it’s an almost too apt illustration of the issue of unwanted soil, because tens of thousands of tons of soil and rock will have to be transferred somewhere else as the tunnels for the train are excavated. According to articles we’ve read, the companies in charge of construction still haven’t secured landfill locations for the soil and rock and some people are worried that hauling contractors like the one who bamboozled the Aichi couple are likely illegally dumping the excavated materials all over Japan in remote areas, polluting watersheds and destroying forests in the process. The fact is, as long as there is money involved, these contractors will find a way, law or no law, to dump anywhere they please.