In a setback for the Tamil Nadu state government, the National Green Tribunal on Saturday set aside the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's closure order to Sterlite Copper and directed that electricity be restored to the smelter. The NGT stated in its final order that the grounds on which the state took the decision to shut the plant owned by Vedanta Ltd. was not sustainable and did not justify the impugned orders. The tribunal's stand is in line with that of the three member committee constituted to probe the closure of the copper plant.
The NGT noted that Sterlite's lawyer had told the Committee that the company was willing to spend RS 100 crore for the welfare of people. NGT directed Sterlite to spend the amount of Rs. 100 Crores within a period of three years for the welfare of the inhabitants in Thoothukudi district. The action plan prepared for utilization of the amount is to be approved from by the Ministry for Environment and Forest.
On May 28, TNPCB ordered the closure and disconnection of electricity supply under provisions of Section 33A of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Section 31A of Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1971. Sterlite's aggrieved parent company Vedanta Private Limited then approached the NGT against the closure orders, following which a expert committee headed by former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court Tarun Agarwal was formed to probe the matter.
The five reasons given by the state government for refusal to grant consent to operate to Sterlite Copper included - i.Not furnishing groundwater analysis report; ii.Not removing copper slag stored along the River Uppar and not constructing physical barrier between the river and the slag, iii.The unit did not have authorization to generate and dispose hazardous waste; iv.The unit has not analyzed parameters of heavy metals in the ambient air quality; v.The unit has failed to construct gypsum pond as per CPCB guidelines.
The NGT however dismissed these arguments and chastised the TNPCB for its actions - 'The statutory requirements of Consent to Establish and Consent to Operate are for the purpose of ensuring control of pollution. In the present case, the TNPCB has adopted hyper technical approach unmindful of object of law. So long as establishment is complying with the Pollution Control norms and is willing to take further precautionary steps, the Pollution Control Boards cannot arbitrarily close such establishments on hyper technicalities, as has been done in the present case. We expect TNPCB to have more focused and professional approach in performing its regulatory functions.'
The NGT also stated that allegations of air and water pollution against Sterlite were rightly not included in the impugned order. It based its observation on the three member committee's report after it surveyed the plant and interacted with both with Sterlite and interveners.
'It is submitted that even though no basis has been found for the grounds on which the impugned order is based, the Committee has taken up some of the points raised by the interveners which rightly were not in the impugned order. The Committee found that issues of alleged gas leak in 1997 and 2013 were covered by judgment of the Honâ€™ble Supreme Court in Sterlite Industries (supra) and judgment of this Tribunal dated 08.08.2013 (supra). As regards health study, it was observed that there is no evidence to indicate that the employees or the villagers were suffering from any ailment on account of activity of the appellant. Regarding air pollution and stack height, it was observed that air quality was within permissible limits as per inspection report of the Committee dated 27.02.2018. With regard to water pollution, it was found that marker pollutants were within permissible limit except TDS which is higher.' reads the order.
'Accordingly, we allow this appeal, set aside the impugned orders and direct the TNPCB to pass fresh order of renewal of consent and authorization to handle hazardous substances, in the light of above finding, subject to appropriate conditions for protection of environment in accordance with law within three weeks from today. The appellant will also be entitled to restoration of electricity for its operations,' states the order.