The Tamil Nadu government faced a huge setback on Saturday when the National Green Tribunal's final order set aside the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi district. The bench made scathing observations against the Tamil Nadu pollution control board (TNPCB), accusing it of being 'hyper technical' and dismissed its reasons for refusing to grant a Consent To Operate (CTO). But with the government set to approach the Supreme Court to keep the plant closed, sources in the TNPCB tell TNM that they have strong arguments that will stand the scrutiny of a 'fair' court.
The TNPCB had submitted five reasons for refusal to grant consent to operate to Sterlite copper, to the NGT. These 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 authorisation 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 tribunal however observed that the TNPCB already had groundwater analysis reports, copper slag was not hazardous, and that Sterlite had already submitted a request for authorisation to dispose waste. It further pointed out that there is no apparent violation of air quality norms and that the deadline for construction of a gypsum pond had not ended.
TNPCB questions NGT decision
In a point by point rebuttal to the NGT's observations, a source in the TNPCB stated that the tribunal has been very superficial in its study of the case and pointed out that it is the duty of the board to be 'hyper-technical.'
"The tribunal has checked if ground water analysis was done but they failed to look into whether there was pollution. We have submitted data of ground water pollution but that was not taken into consideration. As far as copper slag is concerned, we have given research papers highlighting the dangers it poses. We are aware that it is not leachable immediately. But there is a process called withering where slag which is in an open landfill gets exposed to hot and cold weather alternately. In this process, the toxic chemicals in the slag can go into the soil and contaminate the ground water. This scientific reasoning has not been considered," he states.
The official argues that air quality will definitely improve if the plant is shut down, even if the difference is currently minimal, but doesn't explain this further.
"As far as authorisation for disposing hazardous waste is concerned, the NGT has accused us of sitting on the request but this is false. The truth is that Sterlite has not submitted all the requisite data. They have shown us contracts with recycling units or landfill where the waste will be taken to. Measures to transport this have also not been provided. In such a case, how can we give them a license?" asks the official.
As for the gypsum pond, while the TNPCB agrees that there is time till October 2019 for construction, they point out that provisions to be followed in the interim period are not in place.
"These are the contentions that we will present in the Supreme Court as well. Even the NGT committee found our points satisfactory which is why they gave 25 recommendations in their report. If they believed that Sterlite is not a pollutant, why will they agree to our presentation?" he asks.
But the tribunal itself has only asked the company to comply to only eight of the recommendations.
"That is because the NGT has interpreted the report constantly in a manner which favours the company and has purposely failed to delve into its violations," the source alleges. "Parts of its final order are in direct contrast to what the committee led by former Meghalaya Chief Justice Tarun Agarwal has said," he adds.
Both sources in the TNPCB and members of the Anti Sterlite People's movement allege that there has been a breach in judicial process by the NGT.
Fathima Babu, the convenor of the Anti Sterlite movement, has approached the police on Tuesday over Sterlite allegedly accessing the NGT order before it was published on the website. She has further urged the government to do the same.