Six months after the Tamil Nadu government ordered permanent shutdown of the Vedanta-run Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has set aside the order and allowed the plant to re-open.
It directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to “pass fresh order of renewal of consent and authorisation to handle hazardous substances” and directed authorities to restore electricity for the plant’s operations. Further, Vedanta has been asked to deposit Rs 2.5 crore as a token for its inappropriate handling of 3.5 lakh metric tons of copper slag on patta land.
In its order, the bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice A K Goel pulled up the Tamil Nadu government for its “endorsement” of TNPCB’s order and noted that “it cannot be said to be an independent order, but relied on and endorsing the views of the TNPCB which is under challenge” and “that are not sufficient for ordering closure or refusal to grant even consent”.
In May this year, 13 people were killed in police firing on hundreds who marched to the Tuticorin collectorate demanding closure of the Sterlite Copper plant over pollution fears. Subsequently, the state government ordered TNPCB to seal the unit and close the plant permanently, citing a provision of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
Lack of a transparent system for clearances
The NGT setting aside the Tamil Nadu government order, which sought to permanently close the Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin, is an indication of the failure on the part of the government in facilitating a transparent system to provide clearances for industries. It reflects on the larger process of granting environmental clearances for heavily polluting industries. The tribunal’s order is likely to spark further protests on the ground, after the violence in Tuticorin in May.
The NGT pulled up TNPCB for adopting a “hyper technical approach unmindful of object of law” in the present case. “So long as establishment is complying with the Pollution Control norms and is willing to take further precautionary steps, the PCBs cannot arbitrarily close such establishments on hyper technicalities, as has been done in the present case. We expect TNPCB to have more focused and professional approach in performing its regulatory functions,” the order stated.
Responding to concerns over the health impact from the plant, the order stated that there is “no evidence” to show that it has caused “any health hazards in the locality and the pollution caused on account of the same to the environment is irreversible and irremediable.”
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami said the state would challenge the NGT order in the Supreme Court, PTI reported.