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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Oxygen from Sterlite Copper: Permission, capacity, and the road ahead

The Supreme Court has allowed Vedanta Limited to operate its oxygen production units at the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. A look at the oxygen crisis, how the case went to court and local concerns.

Written by Arun Janardhanan , Edited by Explained Desk | Chennai |
Updated: April 30, 2021 8:40:02 am
Sterlite CopperActivists stage a protest against Centre's decision to re-open Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi, Friday, April 23, 2021. (Photo: PTI)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Vedanta Limited to operate its oxygen production units at the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. The Sterlite Copper plant has been shut for three years following public protests and police firing that killed 13 protesters in May 2018. The Supreme Court decision follows a submission by Vedanta Limited, which cited the ongoing crisis for medical oxygen triggered by a surge in Covid-19 cases across the country.

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How it went to court

Vedanta Limited had moved the Supreme Court last week requesting an emergency hearing. Citing the medical oxygen crisis, it asserted that it could produce 1,000 tonnes of oxygen if the plant was allowed to reopen.

On the court’s suggestion, the Tamil Nadu government, which was initially against the idea, held a public hearing in Thoothukudi last week, where most stakeholders opposed the proposal alleging that it was a strategy by Vedanta to reopen the entire plant.

On Monday, Chief Minister E P Palaniswami met representatives of all major political parties. The meeting resolved that the plant would be allowed to reopen conditionally: only for standalone operations of oxygen production and for four months, strictly under the monitoring of the state and district administrations. And Tamil Nadu’s requirement would be prioritised before supplying this oxygen to other states.

The oxygen crisis

There are many suppliers of liquid oxygen in the southern region, including in Sriperumbudur near Chennai. A portion of it was used for medical purposes earlier, too, while the bulk went for industrial purposes.

Data in the public domain shows that the average liquid oxygen capacity of India is 7,200 metric tonnes a day, of which about 800 tonnes was the requirement for medical purposes before the pandemic. Demand went up to 2,000 tonnes/day during the first wave around September 2020.

Oxygen in copper plant

The Vedanta Limited plant has two oxygen production units lying idle, with a combined capacity of 1,050 tonnes. The oxygen from these units is meant to feed the furnaces of the copper-melting plant. These facilities suck in air from the atmosphere, which is processed so that the oxygen-rich fraction of the air is absorbed in the final process.

Vedanta Limited has claimed in the Supreme Court that it can produce 1,000 tonnes oxygen. The state government, however, had submitted in the Madras High Court that the plant has a production capacity of 1,050 tonnes, and only 35 tonnes can be used for medical purposes. Advocate General Vijay Narayan said what is required is liquid oxygen with at least 99.4% purity for medical use while industrial oxygen has only 92%-93% purity. The state submitted that Sterlite also has to install compression and bottling plants to convert gaseous oxygen to liquid oxygen, a process that will take a minimum six months. Sterlite has agreed to set up the compression and bottling plants as soon as possible.

The oxygen produced at Sterlite’s units is crude oxygen. However, on Tuesday, Vedanta Limited submitted in the Supreme Court that it would be able to produce up to 200 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen within 10 days’ time. A source in Vedanta Limited told The Indian Express that the remaining 800 tonnes will be produced as gaseous oxygen, and they are in talks with different stakeholders in the government and private sector to figure out how it can be made available for medical use.

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Local concerns

Sterlite Copper had been facing protests ever since its inception in 1994. The local community’s concerns include hazardous industrial operations that produce toxins such as lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides, pollution of the environment, and their impact on public health.

Following a gas leak in March 2013, the state government ordered shutting down of the plant, and the Supreme Court fined Sterlite Rs 100 crore for flouting environmental norms the following month, but the plant was in operation in June again. It was shut down again following the violent protests and police firing in May 2018.

On Tuesday, Justice D Y Chandrachud said in the Supreme Court: “The nation must stand together in this moment.” He was referring to the medical emergency.

Oxygen production will now depend on maintenance and repair at a plant lying unused for three years. The local population will be apprehensive of any deviation from the agreement to produce oxygen only for medical purposes.

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