The Ministry of Police has put a stop to soil mining at a site in Tafua on Savai’i after a landslide on Monday afternoon claimed the lives of three men.
“The Police in Savai’i have launched an investigation as to what triggered the landslide on Monday afternoon,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Papali’i Monalisa Keti, in response to questions from Samoa Observer.
The decision to stop soil mining is supported by Tafua’s village council, said Village Mayor Fagaomanu Toa’ali’i, who added that the ban went into effect on Monday afternoon.
Villager Eddie Lemaota told the newspaper that the men were allegedly seen using shovels and a garden pick to extract dirt for their load and climbed to the top of the mountain using the garden pick.
Another villager, Lemaota of Tafua, said: “There was no machinery, just tools used by the men.”
Fagaomanu said the incident on Monday occurred between 2.00 to 3.00 pm and the villagers rushed to the site after they were informed. The excavator did not get to the scene until around 4:30 pm, he said only then the bodies of the three men who died were discovered.
“There were five men affected from the landslide. But two were recovered about half an hour after the incident while the other three men were not so fortunate.”
Two of the deceased persons are from Satupa’itea and the third the owner of the land, where the soil was being extracted. Two others are hospitalized and sustained injuries to their faces, backs, legs and hands.
Pictures of the excavator digging the ground, in a bid to locate the buried men, went viral on social media yesterday.
Discussing the decision yesterday to use the excavator, Fagaomanu said the operator initially travelled to the area to oversee the soil mining operation, only to find himself in the middle of a rescue job.
“He was here to oversee the operation but was affected as well. We had to request for a backhoe to dig up the area. At the time of the incident, we did what we thought was best, and the machinery was the best solution we could come up with to dig up the bodies."
“It was not safe for people to go near the area, in case of another land slide, hence using a backhoe. The specific area in question, is relatively important to the village and the families that own these lands, this is their revenue source. All the churches and the school were built from the soil extracted from this area, to make bricks for the village’s projects."
"After our projects we put a stop to soil mining (in) the village,” he said.
According to Fagaomanu, the family that owned the land – which became the site for the soil mining operation – had an agreement with a local company called Tausala Matiu to extract soil.
“The family that owns the specific area, where the incident occurred, had an agreement with the owner of Tausala Matiu, a company out of Satuipaitea. This company was collecting the soil as compensation for what was owed to them, that was the only reason the village allowed it.”
The Ministry of Police is yet to receive a report on the incident from its outpost in Savai’i with the Deputy Police Commissioner indicating that their investigations will be led by team from Upolu.
It is understood the bodies of the three men are in the morgue at the Tuasivi hospital on Savai’i as police investigations continue.
Attempts to contact Ulu Bismark Crawley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.), for a comment were unsuccessful.