April 26, 2021 8:28:48 pm
On Monday, an all-party meeting led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami passed a resolution to allow Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper to open its copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi to produce oxygen for a four-month period amid surging COVID-19 cases. The latest move paves way for the partial reopening of the controversial copper smelter that was closed in 2018 by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board over pollution concerns.
Responding to the state government’s resolution, Vedanta in a statement said that it was committed to making the entire production capacity of 1,000 tonnes available for the purpose of producing medical-grade oxygen and that it was working to dispatch it to critical areas in Tamil Nadu on priority and subsequently across the country.
The copper smelter plant was long-opposed by the local residents for polluting their environment as well as causing a range of health problems in the area. It has the capacity to produce 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year. In March-April 2018, there were several mass protests against the company’s plans of a proposed expansion.
The company had planned to double its production, increasing its capacity up to 800,000 tonnes of copper cathode per year. However, the locals demanded an entire shutdown of the smelting plant which they claimed was violating environmental regulations.
The protesters allege that the pollution generated by the unit contaminated the water bodies in the region, and claimed that they were facing severe health problems. Environmental activists also expressed concern since copper smelting leads to various kinds of pollution and they must be located far away from the residential areas.
The mass agitations took an ugly turn in May 2018 after 13 people were killed in police firing on hundreds who marched to the Tuticorin collectorate demanding closure of the copper smelter. Following this violent incident, the Tamil Nadu government ordered the TNPCB to seal the unit and close the plant permanently, citing a provision of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
In December 2018, the NGT set aside the Tamil Nadu government order for the closure of the company’s copper plant, saying it was “non sustainable” and “unjustified”. Following this, Sterlite sought permission from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for reopening its copper smelter plant.
However, after this, the Madras High Court had ordered a status quo as existed before the NGT set aside a Tamil Nadu government order for closure of the company’s copper plant and restrained Sterlite from reopening it.
In February 2019, the Supreme Court had refused to allow the reopening of the Sterlite plant. Setting aside the NGT order of December 2018 which had allowed its reopening, the apex court said that the NGT does not hold any jurisdiction to do so.
In January last year, the Madras High Court reserved orders on a petition moved by Vedanta challenging the closure of its Sterlite Copper’s smelting unit. The bench said it would try to deliver the order as expeditiously as possible. Vedanta had moved the plea as suggested by the Supreme Court.
Now, with pandemic affecting the country with a record high cases, the Supreme Court last week, while hearing Vedanta’s plea regarding making the Sterlite plant operational again for manufacturing medical oxygen, said it cannot cite law and invite problems at a time when the country is struggling for supply.
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