MAC: Mines and Communities

Vedanta guilty of violations at Indian copper smelter

Published by MAC on 2011-08-30
Source: Statement (2011-08-17)

Supreme Court orders pollution control measures

In October last year, the Madras High Court ordered Sterlite Industries - a subsidiary of UK-listed Vedanta Resources - to cease operating its Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) copper smelter in Tamil Nadu.

Local citizen environmentalists had provided compelling evidence that the company was willfully violating pollution control regulations. See:

New study claims Vedanta smelter "endangers human health"

Indian court orders closure of Vedanta's "polluting" copper plant

The closure never occurred. In early 2011 the company went to the country's Supreme Court and successfully argued for a "stay of execution" while further evidence was being gathered.

Last month, after touring the plant, a team convened by NEERI (one of India's leading scientific institutes), confirmed some of the allegations made by the litigants.

The Supreme Court has now directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to file an application, specifying the polluting materials illegally released from the plant, and propose ways of checking emissions in and around the factory.

Although detailed content of the NEERI report has not been made public, it seems clear that Vedanta is once again failing to comply with environmental laws.

That's something of which the company had already been found guilty by the Supreme Court's own Hazardous Waste Monitoring Committee when it visited the Tuticorin plant back in 2004. See: India's Supreme Court Panel Cracks Down on Hazardous Waste

Vedanta's "defense"

From the outset, the smelter also stood in breach of a strict ban imposed on the siting of industrial operations within a 25 metre radius of the ecologically-sensitive Gulf of Mannar.

Indeed, it was this specific violation that persuaded the Madras High Court to serve notice that the smelter be closed.

Nonetheless, Vedanta argues that the ban is "merely recommendary in nature and... therefore capable of being waived upon consideration by the statutory authorities, the Central and the state governments".

It's almost a year now since the High Court delivered its judgment.

Yet the plant continues not only to operate, but also pollute.

On 17 August 2011, according to information coming from within the plant, a 45-minute poisonous gas leak partially-suffocated some of its workforce.

[Comment by Nostromo Research 28 August 2011].

SC seeks TN pollution board's response in Sterlite case

By Indu Bhan

Financial Express

26 August 2011

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to give details about the effluents from the Sterlite Industries' 400,000-metric tonne copper smelter plant at Tuticorin.

A bench headed by RV Raveendran also asked TNPCB to file an application specifying the polluting materials released from the plant and suggest steps to check pollution in and around the factory.

"TNPCB is to discharge its function in maintaining pollution-free environment. If the company (Sterlite) will comply with the order, it will run. Otherwise, they will have to close down," the judges observed.

It also asked TNPCB to specify deficiencies in the report filed by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which had suggested various measures to arrest pollution, including air and ground water.

The bench, however, rejected the company's plan to dispose of the matter at the earliest as it wanted to expand the capacity of the Tuticorin smelter.

"Environment issue will haunt industries as awareness among the people has come. And expansion has to wait...," the judges observed.

The court also said it was not here to monitor every industry in the country and there were specific authorities like TNPCB to monitor it.

Earlier, the court had stayed the Madras High Court's judgment that directed immediate closure of the London-listed Vedanta group company's copper smelting plant, which is facing charges of violating environmental norms.

The high court had also on September 28 last year directed the company to pay compensation to its workmen and also asked the state government to provide reemployment to such workmen.

According to Sterlite, its Tuticorin smelter plant had been operating for more than 12 years and had all the requisite approvals from the state Pollution Control Board and other regulatory authorities including the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Besides, the high court had passed... the impugned order on mere allegations of violations and without any evidence, it said.

According to the company, the maintenance of a 25 metre radius from certain ecologically sensitive areas were merely recommendary in nature and were, therefore, capable of being waived upon consideration by the statutory authorities, the Central and the state governments.

The project was cleared by MoEF after examining all aspects and even in the subsequent expansions of 2004 and 2006-07, when public hearing was mandatory, two public hearings were conducted and thereafter environment clearance and consent were granted.

The High Court had held that Sterlite's plant was within 25 km of an ecologically fragile area (the Gulf of Mannar, which was declared a National Park in 1986) and the company has failed to develop a green belt of 250 metre width around the plant .


Gas Leak Scare at Sterlite Thoothukudi

17 August 2011

A white gas (suspected to be Sulphur Dioxide) escaped for about 45 minutes at ground level throwing a scare among Sterlite workers, after a power outage caused a shutdown of the Copper smelter and sulphuric acid plant at around 10.30 a.m. today (17 August, 2011).

The wind was blowing from East to West and carried the smoke away from the highway and the Milavittan village. The worker who gave the information said he was near the smelter when the incident happened. "Workers ran away immediately, and I went to the Canteen. We experienced some suffocation and burning sensation," the worker said.

A complaint has been lodged with the District Collector, Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board and the Inspector of Factories who is in charge of labour safety. No confirmation of the incident from Sterlite was available at the time of writing. The District Environmental Engineer of TNPCB was unaware of the incident.

The same worker said that such incidents are frequent. "Unfortunately, it happens only when officials are not visiting. Yesterday, the District Collector and TNPCB visited the factory and drove around the plant. On Saturday, the sub-collector was here," he said.

The visit by the District officials and TNPCB is suspected to be related to the report that the Government of Tamilnadu has to submit to the Supreme Court on a recent NEERI report about the environmental status of the controversial copper smelter.

"When the oxygen plant trips and shuts down, everything else does too. The blower in the chimney stops working, and the emissions escape from beneath the Electrostatic Precipitator bypassing the smokestack," he said.

Based on information received by Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai, via phone at around 12.30 p.m, 17 August 2011.

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