A division bench of the Gujarat High Court Monday directed for the appointment of a court commissioner to look into allegations of discharge of untreated trade effluents into the Tapi river and its creek by steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Ltd (AM/NS) in Surat.
A division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and AJ Shastri Monday instructed the director of Indian Institute of Gandhinagar (IIT-Gn) to nominate or depute environmental engineers or such personnel to undertake the exercise to ascertain “at which points AM/NS is discharging the trade effluents” and “the standards of the said effluents at the discharge points”. “This court is of the considered view that it is necessary to appoint an independent agency to ascertain certain factual aspects by way of collection of evidence which can be done only through appointment of court commissioner,” the bench reasoned.
The case pertains to public interest litigation moved by environmental scientist Roshni Patel after which the HC had, on February 14, issued notices to the central and state government authorities, pollution control boards, Surat authorities and ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Ltd.
However, even after more than four months, the respondents are yet to file any responses on the contentions raised in the PIL, thus compelling the court on Monday to appoint a court commissioner to look into the issues being raised by the PIL. The PIL had pointed out that the effluent disposal by the company is in violation of the zero discharge conditions imposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) while granting it environmental clearance in 2016 and 2010.
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It was also alleged that AM/NS was illegally discharging industrial effluents containing acid, heavy metals, organic substances, high TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) and phenolic compounds, among others, from its Hazira plant in the Tapi estuary.
A Consolidated Consent and Authorisation (CCA) order from 2020 had also stipulated that the final treated effluent should be reused at the plant for gardening and plantation purposes and the company should not discharge treated wastewater into the surrounding environment.
According to the petitioner, the discharge harms fish-breeding and causes large-scale water pollution. A September 2021 study by Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) carried out at the request of villagers residing in the vicinity of the Hazira plant had found that the industrial effluent discharged into the water bodies did not adhere to the prescribed norms. It also pointed out that the regional office of MoEFCC had, in 2020, observed that AM/NS was not complying to the zero effluent discharge condition.
On Monday, the division bench observed that AM/NS “should have volunteered” to come forward with the necessary information in this regard instead of “vehemently resisting” the appointment of a court commissioner. Noting that such contentions should be “rejected outrightly”, the court said “it will be well equipped to deal with the contentions of the parties if there is a third-party report available to know the actual status of the trade effluents being discharged.”
“As such (AM/NS) cannot be allowed to contend that the appointment of a court commissioner would harm its interests but, on the other hand, if the trade effluents that are being discharged hitherto are (not) meeting the prescribed standards, it cannot hide behind to otherwise assert that it would meet the prescribed standards,” the bench noted.
Meanwhile, objecting to the HC jurisdiction, AM/NS counsel senior advocate Mihir Thakore submitted that the National Green Tribunal would be the right forum to adjudicate on the matter. The court responded saying “even if the said contention is to be accepted at a later stage”, such a report by the court commissioner would serve as a “vital piece of evidence available on record” and “be of utmost assistance” to the NGT to examine the rival contentions.
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