In mounting proof against the Sterlite copper industry in Thoothukudi, a new report has found that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board allowed Sterlite to operate its copper smelter with chimney stacks far shorter than what is legally required.
In a statement to media persons in Chennai, the Chennai Solidarity Network and civil society activists from Thoothukudi demanded answers as to why the Vedanta owned firm was allowed to operate in violation of TNPCB rules.
Author of the report and city-based social activist Nityanand Jayaraman said, “A low stack will not allow pollutants – sulphur dioxide (SO2) in this case – to disperse properly. This will lead to unsafe levels of SO2 in the air that people breathe. Sterlite’s chimneys are not as per law. How and why TNPCB allowed Sterlite to operate with such a short stack should be investigated.”
Pointing out that the height of the chimney is required by law to be increased corresponding to the rising level of emissions, activists alleged that Sterlite has been allowed to expand its production tenfold – from 40,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) to 4 lakh tpa – without any increase in chimney height.
Speaking to TNM, Professor Fatima Babu, a long-time activist and member of the anti-Sterlite Struggle Committee, slammed the TNPCB for allowing the firm to operate with impunity.
“The arrogance of those concerned with survival of Sterlite is based majorly on the ignorance of the people. They know that the people are not aware of the basic mistakes and the atrocities committed by Sterlite. But we will keep coming out with more evidence and break that. We are doing what they should have done. They should have come out in favour of people who are just struggling to live rather than protecting one company. It is their duty to take care of the people. But they failed. The evidence is forthcoming from people within the departments who still have a conscience within them. The impunity with which these people are acting shows the attitude they have towards the issue.”
Expressing disappointment that an agency mandated to deal primarily with environmental concerns has not answered their questions on irregularities, Fatima said, “TNPCB has not given any answers. Whenever they were cornered, they came out with certain temporary steps. They put forth questions to the company that can be easily answered. The questions that need to be placed before a company like this are not being put to them. This means that the TNPCB is more concerned with safeguarding the money-making policy of the government, rather than the lives and the livelihood of the people.”
According to the report, “Sterlite has been treated favourably and exempted from statutory requirements from day one, the report found. As against a mandatory design requirement of 69 metres for the permitted production (40,000 tpa) in 1996, Sterlite was allowed to operate with a 60 metre stack. The existing plant with 4 lakh tpa copper capacity also has only 60 metre stacks against a legal minimum of 103 metres. Meanwhile Sterlite’s proposed plant of similar capacity and design intends to have a stack that is 165 metres tall.”
Acting on protests and demonstrations against the firm, the TNPCB rejected the renewal of its Consent to Operate for the the unit on April 9. However, activists point out that the monitoring body has failed to acknowledge that that existing stacks were not designed in keeping with the law.
Civil society activists have resolved to find legal recourse against the TNPCB. The activists plan to file vigilance complaints against the agency as well as criminal complaints against those involved in abetting the toxic operations. “Any responsible government will realise the seriousness of these crimes and immediately and permanently shut down Sterlite,” the statement said.