In a blow to the Tamil Nadu government, the three-member committee formed by National Green Tribunal (NGT) to probe the closure of the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi district has termed the state's move as unsustainable.
Reading from the report submitted by the expert committee headed by former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court Tarun Agarwal, the NGT stated that the sealing of the copper smelter plant was against ‘natural justice’. One of the main reasons provided was the lack of a notice and time given to the company to respond ahead of the sealing.
"From day one, we have been demanding that the plant be opened again because the closure was unjustified," said senior advocate Aryama Sundaram, who argued for Vedanta Ltd. "The report submitted by the committee states that there are no sufficient grounds for closure. This was purely a political move and the report is favourable to Sterlite. The court has also given a recommendation to the company and TNPCB. They have directed that the air and groundwater quality must be constantly monitored," he added.
After 13 civilians lost their lives when Tamil Nadu police opened fire at them for marching in protest against the Sterlite plant, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had ordered for the closure of the plant on May 28. The 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.
The Board directed attention to the application made by Vedanta Ltd. seeking renewal of the Consent To Operate (CTO) and the rejection of the application in April for non-compliance of certain conditions under the previous CTO. 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.
A copy of the report has been given to counsels of the government and Vedanta Ltd and next hearing is scheduled for December 7. Both parties are expected to give in their submissions in connection to the report next week. While portions of the report read out by the NGT speak about the grounds for closure, the order and the manner in which it was given, little has been said about whether the plant is a pollutant as alleged and if it had violated environmental laws.
Expert Committee's recommendations
Of the recommendations made by the three-member expert committee, the most important ones are listed below.
- Sterlite should be directed to monitor ground water quality including heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Silver, Copper, Fluoride, etc. in and around the factory premises and nearby villages once a month and such report should be furnished to the TNPCB. The sample to be taken from ground water to be given to TNPCB must be taken in the presence of one TNPCB official.
- The sampling of effluent/emission and solid waste should also be done by a monitoring group to be constituted by TNPCB comprising a representative of the District Collector, an official of TNPCB, NGOs and academicians.
- Copper slag dumped at all the eleven sites including the Uppar River should be removed. If copper slag has been used for landfill purposes, then the excess amount of the slag over and above the level of ground to be removed and the landfill should be compacted with one feet of soil, so that the copper slag is not blown away by the strong winds.
- The dead stock of copper slag and gypsum lying in the dump yard inside the factory premises which has solidified should be removed in a time bound manner. Further, the Company should ensure that the generation and disposal of copper slag and gypsum is maintained in the ratio of 1:1 and that the Company at best, can retain 10 days generation of both in its dump yard.
- The State of Tamil Nadu/ TNPCB should collect data from their primary health centres and Govt. Hospitals to monitor the various ailments that are being complaint of by the inhabitants living in and around the factory premises.
- Irrespective of the norms, stack height in any case be increased in order to remove the ambiguity and the grievance of inhabitants of the people of the Tuticorin with regard to emission of Sulpur Dioxide. Till the stack height is increased, the production of copper as well as sulfuric acid should be restricted/reduced to match the existing stack height.
- All the monitoring data, compliance reports of CTE/CTO/EC and environmental statement shall be uploaded on the website of the Company.
- TNPCB should be directed to commission “Regional Environmental Impact Assessment Study” in and around Tuticorin District by engaging a reputed national agency.
A case in connection to these allegations is underway in the Madurai bench of the Madras High court where the TNPCB has submitted data on pollution levels in and around Thoothukudi based on studies conducted on a weekly basis. The study reportedly shows that pollution levels have reduced following the shut down of the plant. The TNPCB too had claimed to the NGT committee that since the shutdown of the plant in May, the air quality in and around the plant had improved. This claim was contested by Vedanta which argued that the methodology adopted by TNPCB to arrive at the conclusion was flawed.
The NGT committee headed by former Chief Justice Tarun Agarwal and comprising scientists Satish C Garkoti and H D Varalaxmi was formed in August. In September, the expert committee visited the Thoothukudi plant and conducted observations. The committee also held public consultations in Thoothukudi to gather inputs about the people’s take on the status of the plant. Multiple hearings were held on the matter in October in Chennai before a report was submitted by the committee to the NGT last week.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a review petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Government over the NGT's decision to allow Vedanta Ltd to challenge the state government's closure order to the Sterlite Copper plant. It also questioned allowing Sterlite employees to access the administrative block.
The apex court, however, said that there was no error in judgement warranting reconsideration of the order impugned and dismissed the review petition.