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Troubled by protests,Sterlite awaits green tribunal’s order

The gas leak led to protests on March 28,followed by a closure order two days later.

Written by Gopu Mohan | Chennai |
April 3, 2013 1:46:12 am

The fate of Sterlite Industries,and that of thousands of people of coastal Tuticorin,now depends on the south bench of the National Green Tribunal,which is hearing the company’s petition against its closure ordered by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

The biggest copper smelting unit in the country,part of the Vedanta Group,moved the tribunal after the TNPCB ordered closure of the plant following a gas leak on March 23,believed to be sulphur dioxide,that killed one person and affected hundreds of people in Tuticorin,about 600 kms from here. The gas leak led to protests on March 28,followed by a closure order two days later.

The company maintains that the person died due to haemorrhage a day after the leak was reported. The district administration said nobody was admitted to hospitals after the incident.

Though the Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to direct closure of the plant,the PCB order would stand,unless the tribunal,which is set to hear the case on April 9,decides otherwise.

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Meanwhile,MDMK general secretary Vaiko,one of the petitioners in the case,said he would file an appeal against the SC order.

The 17-year-old plant has faced controversies ever since its inception. Months after it was commissioned in 1996,the protests began. The first accident happened in July 1997,when over 100 women working in a nearby unit were reportedly affected by gas leak. A month later,a blast killed two workers.

Following a string of petitions by activists and political leaders,a High Court-appointed committee in 1998 recommended closure of the factory on the ground that approvals from both central and state agencies were granted in contravention of statutory requirements,and based on inadequately prepared environmental impact assessment. The bench accepted the recommendation and ordered its closure in November 1998,but revoked the order a month later.

A decade later,on September 28,2008,the court again ordered closure of the plant for damaging the environment. But the company filed a special leave petition and obtained a stay from the apex court.

“Besides gas leaks,there is pollution due to discharge of arsenic,cadmium and flouride,” said Nithyanand Jayaraman,an activist associated with the Anti-Sterlite People’s Struggle Committee.

The company is also accused of setting up the plant within 15 kms of the ecologically fragile Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park against CRZ norms. But Sterlite has claimed that the plant follows international benchmarks on environmental issues.

Besides the legal and environmental issues,the future of the company depends on the stand taken by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. The plant came to Tamil Nadu from Maharashtra,after protests there forced the company to scout for a new location. Jayalalithaa was the chief minister then.

The incidents of gas leaks and accidents were reported several times in the past during both the AIADMK and DMK regimes. But the company managed to continue operations without much trouble,until recently.

Jayalalithaa is now believed to be building her image among the people,especially the coastal community,ahead of next year’s general elections. And this has been a burning issue among the people in the region.

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