MAC: Mines and Communities

Vedanta faces India's Green Tribunal over smelter disaster

Published by MAC on 2013-04-15
Source: Reuters, Press Trust of India

The UK company is also fined US$18.4 million

India's Supreme Court has fined Vedanta's Sterlite subsidiary US$18.4 million for polluting water, soil, and air around its Tuticorin copper smelter in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, on 23 March 2013. See: Vedanta Indian copper smelter closed, following toxic leak

However, as might have been foreseen, the Court overruled a lower court order that the plant be permanently shut, arguing it was an important source of employment, copper and revenue, and that Vedanta had recently taken steps to stem the pollution.

But this isn't an end to the matter. 

Last Friday (12 April 2013) the country's National Green Tribunal said it would constitute a committee to inspect the plant.

The Tribunal was set up in 2010 in order to "fast track" decisions about actual or potentially damaging industrial projects which threaten the health and welfare of citizens.

Following the committee's report, the tribunal could allow the re-opening of the plant.

Or it might heed the demands of many local people, backed by evidence scrupulousy collected over many years, that it should be kept closed.

Meanwhile, Reuters has obtained data from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), documenting the true extent of last month's "leak":

"Sterlite released two gas plumes early on the morning of March 23, containing as much as 2,941.12 milligrams per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide, almost off the sensor's chart and more than double a government limit for smokestack concentration."

Moreover, Tuticorin's District Collector (the senior local government officer) estimates that "up to 5,000 peple" were impacted by the event.

In another Supreme Court judgment, sixteen companies, including Vedanta Aluminium, Tata Steel and Adani Enterprises, have been "asked" to deposit 50% of entry tax dues, which they allegedly didn't pay on goods imported for their plants and services in Orissa between 2008 and 2012.

This appears to be another example of the Court's lack of resilience in the face of corporate pressures.

It had already "asked" the  Orissa state government "not to resort to coercive actions against the companies for recovery of entry tax dues".

Sterlite Industries' copper smelter ignites toxic debate

By Anupama Chandrasekaran


9 April 2013

TUTICORIN - Housewife A. Puneeta was washing dishes on a foggy Saturday morning when suddenly her throat began to burn. Coughing hard and struggling to breathe, she rushed into the street to find her neighbours running, haphazardly, in panic.

"First people said there was a gas leak, and then someone said Sterliteseemed to have opened up something, and that's the cause of the throat burning," said Puneeta, 32, who is married to a fisherman in this port town near the southern tip of India.

She was referring to Sterlite Industries , a unit of London-based Vedanta Resources , which operates India's biggest copper smelter a few miles (kilometres) away, and which has been shut by authorities despite the firm denying the smelter was to blame for the emissions in the area on March 23.

Other residents recounted similar stories. Two spoken to separately by Reuters also said the emissions caused leaves on plants and trees to wither and drop in front of their eyes, while another, who is asthmatic, said she struggled to breathe as she walked home from church and had to use her Ventolin inhaler.

The plant employs 4,000 and supports thousands more jobs indirectly. But since opening in 1996 it has split this coastal city between residents who say it is crucial for the local economy and farmers and fishermen who see it as a health hazard.

Similar debates are playing out across India where disputes over safety, the environment and livelihoods overshadow the efforts of Asia's third-largest economy to industrialize. Just 100 km (62 miles) south, in Kudankulam, fishermen are fiercely opposing a new nuclear power plant.

Tuticorin and Kudankulam sit on the Gulf of Munnar, famed for its pearls, coral reefs, and marine life. Environmental activists who say Sterlite is damaging the region's ecology have been fighting for years to close the smelter permanently.

Tamil Nadu's Pollution Control Board closed the smelter until further notice late last month and said a sensor in the smelter's smokestack showed sulphur dioxide levels were more than double the permitted concentration at the time emissions were reported.

Sterlite denied the smelter, which makes half the copper India produces every year, was the source. The smelter's general manager of projects said there were no emissions at the time because the plant was starting up after two days of maintenance, not producing copper, and high readings in the smokestack were likely a result of workers recalibrating the sensors.

On Tuesday, a fast-track environmental court deferred until April 12 a hearing on allowing the plant to reopen, a move that is being closely watched by environmentalists and the global copper market. The plant will remain shut at least until then.

History of Environmental Pollution

Anti-smelter activist P.A. Dharmaraj does not see eye-to-eye with his neighbour, who is a supporter of the plant. The former farmer says pollution from the smelter two km (1.4 miles) from his house had poisoned crops, driving him out of business.

"As soon as sulphur dioxide started being emitted by the Sterlite plant, the rainfall naturally decreased," he said. "Rain ... will not fall on our lands since then. Our crops also started getting scorched because of the emissions."

Sulphur dioxide emissions can cause acid rain, although the impact on weather patterns is more complex, scientists say. U.S. advocacy group the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide in 2010 said a soil sample taken from outside Dharmaraj's house contained arsenic levels ten times that considered safe in Britain, as well as high quantities of toxins such as cadmium.

In the courtyard of Dharmaraj's house, his neighbour M. Mariammal argued in favour of the plant - where her son, a graduate, works as a supervisor. She does, however, now buy bottled water because of concerns that wells may have been polluted, but said it was a price worth paying.

"I wouldn't have money to buy either water or rice if my son didn't have that job," she said.

Sterlite has a history of environmental pollution after a 2005 government study said the smelter leaked arsenic and heavy metals into the soil and water. The company says it has since complied with recommendations by pollution authorities to improve environmental standards.

The Supreme Court last week fined Sterlite $18.4 million for polluting water, soil, and air around the plant and documented 15 years of abuses. The ruling, part of a long-running case brought by environmental activists, came just days after the suspected gas leak.

The court cited the 2005 government study that found levels of arsenic in ground water near the site were eight times those recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Cadmium, chromium, copper and lead levels also exceeded drinking water standards in some wells.

Despite imposing the fine, the Supreme Court sided with Sterlite and overruled a lower court in Tamil Nadu that had ordered the smelter to shut down. The Supreme Court said the plant was a big source of employment, copper and revenue and the firm had taken steps since last year to stop the pollution.

5,000 Estimated to be Affected

A document from Tamil Nadu state's Pollution Control Board obtained by Reuters said Sterlite released two gas plumes early on the morning of March 23, containing as much as 2,941.12 milligrams per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide, almost off the sensor's chart and more than double a government limit for smokestack concentration.

"The recording was about 3,000. The sensor can record only up to 3,000," Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board Chairman D. Karthikeyan said.

The pollution board does not have an air measuring station in the area of town affected, 5 km (3 miles) downwind from the smelter, but it said reported symptoms suggested levels there could have hit 13,000 micrograms per cubic metre - massively exceeding a national ambient air quality limit of 80 micrograms per cubic metre for sulphur dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns against exposure of more than 1,430 micrograms for three hours a year.

Sterlite's general manager of projects, D. Dhanavel, said the high sulphur dioxide readings could have been due to workers adjusting the sensors on the smokestack after the maintenance.

"Whenever we start the factory, we calibrate all the instruments," said Dhanavel. "Now we have to check if it was a calibration error or some other issue."

That explanation did not satisfy pollution authorities. After giving Sterlite five days to explain, the pollution board ordered the plant to close until further notice.

"The reply of the unit is unsatisfactory and untenable," the board said in its order to close the plant, seen by Reuters.

No serious health problems have been reported so far, but the office of Tuticorin's district collector, the town's most senior government official, estimates up to 5,000 people were affected by the emissions.

The future of the plant - which is seeking approval to double its capacity to 800,000 tonnes per year - now hinges on the decision of the National Green Tribunal.

Pollution Control Board lawyer Abdul Saleem said the company would have to appeal again to the Supreme Court if the tribunal rules against it.

(Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Ed Davies)

Bandh affects normal life in Tuticorin

Press Trust of India

8 April 2013

Tuticorin - The bandh [strike] call given by anti Sterlite protestors to permanently shut down the copper smelter unit following alleged leak of noxious gas evoked good response in the town today.

Most of the shops and commercial establishments remained closed, with only a few medical shops and others selling essential items being open, an official said.

Adequate security personnel were deployed in the district to prevent any untoward incident.

The operations of the plant were halted on March 30 after the March 23 alleged gas leak which caused mild suffocation, sore throat and eye irritation to several people in the locality.

On April 2, the Supreme Court asked Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of UK-based Vedanta Group, to pay Rs 100 crore as compensation for polluting environment through its unit but refused to direct its closure.

Tribunal says panel will inspect Sterlite's Tuticorin plant

The members of the committee to inspect Sterlite's copper smelter will be
decided on 18 April

Livemint-Wall St Journal

12 April 2013

Chennai: The national green tribunal on Friday said it will constitute a committee to inspect the country's largest copper smelter, run by Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd.

The members of the committee will be decided on 18 April, said judicial member M. Chockalingam and expert member R. Nagendran of the national green tribunal.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the closure of the plant-which produces more than 300,000 tonnes of the metal a year-on 29 March after local residents complained about noxious emissions.

Sterlite, a unit of London-listed resources conglomerate Vedanta Resources Plc., has said the plant's emissions are within permissible limits.

On 1 April, Sterlite filed a petition with the national green tribunal challenging the order of the state pollution control board.

The committee will inspect and assess the state of the copper plant. It will give its report on or before 29 April. Only after the findings of committee are presented will the tribunal decide on the re-opening of the plant, Chockalingam said.

The unit should be open for monitoring but it can't start resume commercial production, the tribunal said.

During the proceedings on Friday, the judicial member asked why the pollution control board waited for more than a week to shut the plant if it found toxic amounts of sulphur dioxide were released between 2am and 11am on 23 March.

The Supreme Court last week fined Sterlite Rs.100 crore for polluting the environment but set aside a 2010 directive of the Madras high court to permanently close the Tuticorin smelter on grounds of environmental concerns.

The apex court said its judgement would not stand in the way of the matter regarding the emissions.

Vaiko, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu-based political party Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is one of three entities supporting the state pollution watchdog's order to shut the Sterlite plant.

Sterlite shares ended unchanged at Rs.88.50 on BSE on Friday, while the benchmark Sensex fell 1.62% to 18,242.56 points.

Orissa entry tax: SC asks 16 firms to deposit R175 cr

Utkarsh Anand

Indian Express

10 April 2013

New Delhi - The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked 16 companies, including Vedanta Aluminium, Tata Steel and Adani Enterprises, to deposit around Rs 175 crore - 50 per cent of entry tax dues allegedly payable on goods imported by them for their plants and services in Orissa between 2008 and 2012.

In an interim order, a bench led by Justice HL Dattu directed the companies to deposit 50 per cent of the state entry tax demand payable on imported plant machinery and raw materials.

It also stayed recovery of penalty imposed by the state government on companies for delayed or non-payment of tax dues and asked the companies to further pay 50 per cent of the tax demands, if raised, in future.

However, the bench also clarified that the amount so deposited would be refunded to the companies in case they succeeded in the matter.

The bench had last month asked Orissa not to resort to coercive actions against the companies for recovery of entry tax dues.

The verbal restraint order had come after the counsel for the companies contended that after the notices for recovery of taxes, Garnishee proceedings were also sought to be initiated.

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