The National Green Tribunal is set to hold its final hearing in the case against Vedanta Private Limited's Sterlite Copper on Monday. An independent expert committee that was set up by the Tribunal to probe into the closure order issued by the Tamil Nadu state government to the company submitted its report last month. Headed by former Meghalaya Chief Justice Tarun Agarwal, the committee has argued that the unit should be reopened as its closure was against principles of natural justice.
In its last hearing on December 7, Vedanta agreed to adhere by the committee's recommendations and even offered to invest Rs. 100 crore in Thoothukudi district for public welfare. The state government and the counsel for the anti-sterlite protesters are likely to argue against the committee's report on Monday.
The committee had said, "The impugned orders cannot be sustained as it is against the principles of natural justice. No notice or opportunity of hearing was given to the appellant. The grounds mentioned in the impugned orders are not that grievous to justify permanent closure of the factory. Other issues raised also does not justify the closure of the factory even if the appellant was found to be violating the conditions/norms/ directions."
But the 205 page report accessed by TNM highlights in detail that the committee has observed several gross violations of environmental norms by Sterlite Copper. It also holds the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) responsible for lack of timely action to prevent pollution by the plant. On April 9, the TNPCB rejected Sterliteâ€™s application for renewal of consent based on five grounds. These included non-submission of groundwater analysis report taken from borewells within the unit premises, non-removal of copper slag dumped along Uppar river and patta land, disposing hazardous waste without valid authorisation, and not constructing gypsum pond as per CPCB guidelines. In addition to the allegations, the committee has also reported on the required green belt and chimney stack height.
Of these, the committee found that Sterlite had committed five offences.
First, it failed to independently monitor ground water quality.
The committee has pulled both Sterlite Copper and the TNPCB for this lapse. Part 100 of the report reads, "As per condition number 44, the appellant is required to analyse the groundwater quality on their own once a month and furnish the report to the TNPCB periodically. This apparently has not been done by the Company. However, the Committee finds that no notice in this regard was ever issued by the TNPCB to the appellant. "
Second, it had not removed slag from the banks of the Uppar river and this was affecting the flow of the water body.
The committee inspected the spot where the dumping allegedly happened and found that 3.5 lakh metric tonnes of copper slag.
Para 119 of its report states that, â€śThe appellant company could not have sold slag more than what was required to fill up the low-lying area. The quantity sold in excess was wholly inappropriate. The contention of the appellant that it is not their responsibility to remove the copper slag is erroneous. The committee is of the opinion that the retaining wall so constructed was inadequate and in any case copper slag could not have been dumped next to the Uppar river. It is the responsibility of the appellant company to ensure that the copper slag is put to beneficial use and is not dumped haphazardly.â€ť
Part 118 of then points out that the flow of the rviver was affected by this - "According to the Collector, this copper slag resulted in the diversion of the flow of the river during the rainy season last year (i.e. 2017). As a result the rain water came into the Collectorate and in other offices and into the city. This was only because of the obstruction of the flow of the river by the copper slag dumped next to the river."
Third, they were not disposing of the hazardous waste they were generating as per the Rules of 2016. In this case, the committee once again blamed the TNPCB and Sterlite copper for the violations.
"One gets an uncanny feeling that neither the appellant was interested in having the authorization under the Rules of 2016 nor were the TNPCB keen to either issue the authorization letter or to reject the application. Further, the Committee finds it strange to note that whereas lot of noise has been raised by the TNPCB that the Company has continued to dispose of hazardous waste for more than 58 months without taking a valid authorization under the relevant Rules, on the other hand, the Board continued to give consent to the appellant to operate the unit. In the opinion of the Committee it is not open to the TNPCB to blow hot and cold at the same time, namely, allowing the Company to operate and continue with its manufacturing activities and, on the other hand, taking no action on the application for grant of authorization under the Rules of 2016. The Committee is of the opinion that in the current scenario both the appellants and the Pollution Board are responsible equally for keeping the application pending," reads part 129.
Fourth, the Greenbelt present is not sufficient.
â€śThe condition that the company is required to develop 25 metres width of green belt around the battery limits of the factory has not been adhered to by the company,â€ť the report reads.
And finally, the chimney stack height was not sufficient. The committee has stated that if load-basis standards at one kilogram is applied, the stack height of the copper smelter should be 67.83 metres. Currently however, the stack is 60.38 metres, which is below prescribed limits.
The NGT committee was constituted in August 2018, after the TNPCB ordered for the closure of the plant on May 28 under section 33A of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and Section 31A of Air (Prevention and control of Pollution) Act. Vedanta, aggrieved by the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to shut down the plant, approached the NGT to resolve the matter and issue a stay against the order of the state government.
The NGT appointed Tarun Agrawal, the former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court, to lead the expert committee. The other members in the committee were scientists Satish C Garkoti and H D Varalaxmi.
In September, the expert committee visited the Thoothukudi plant and conducted observations. In October, all parties connected to the case presented their arguments following which a final report was prepared.