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Tuticorin’s Sterlite Plant No Stranger to Controversy, Had Faced Closure Once

Locals, as well as environmental rights groups, say that the unit is a major source of local groundwater and air pollution and that the smelter has caused severe environmental damage to the area.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com@theotherbose

Updated:May 23, 2018, 5:21 PM IST
Tuticorin’s Sterlite Plant No Stranger to Controversy, Had Faced Closure Once
File Photo: A view of the main entrance of Sterlite Industry in Tuticorin,Tamil Nadu. (Image: Reuters )

The violence over Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi, or Tuticorin as it is more commonly known, in which at least 11 people were killed on Tuesday in police firing was not the first time that the unit has captured national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Sterlite Copper, previously called Sterlite Industries, is part of Vedanta Ltd, which is a subsidiary of the UK-based metal conglomerate, Vedanta Resources.

It is mainly involved in mining copper in Tuticorin. The city unit includes a smelter, a refinery, a phosphoric acid plant, a copper rod plant and three captive power plants. The plant was set up in 1997.

Locals, as well as environmental rights groups, say that the unit is a major source of local groundwater and air pollution and that the smelter has caused severe environmental damage to the area.

The Trigger

The protests flared in March after the company announced plans to expand the plant and increase production of copper from the current 4 lakh tonnes to 8 lakh tonnes annually.

The plant was closed on March 29 for 15 days for “maintenance work”. But it will remain shut until at least June 6 as Tamil Nadu pollution control board will not allow it to operate due to alleged non-compliance with environmental rules.

Owing to the unrest, the pollution board has also refused to renew its initial 25-year license, which expires this year. The PCB cited six reasons for the non-renewal, including not meeting prescribed pollution control standards.

Facing imminent closure, Sterlite lodged an appeal, but it was turned down. Currently, Sterlite Copper is fighting a case in the TNPCB Appellate Authority against the rejection of its renewal application.

Chequered History

This uprising in March, however, is not the first time the Sterlite plant has had a brush with controversy. Local residents have been protesting against it since the late 90s.

The plant has faced legal questions right from its inception when Sterlite Industries sought and received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for setting up of the plant that was to produce 1200 tonnes of copper every day. No public consultations were conducted despite provisions of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 necessitating public consultations in case of setting up of copper smelters.

On May 10, 2016, the Madras High Court dismissed a writ petition challenging the decision to give clearance to the plant.

The ministry cited the location of the plant as the reason for the dismissal. But the location of the plant itself has been a contentious topic.

The plant is located just 25 km away from one of the four islands that make up the Gulf of Mannar. The region is identified to be a sensitive one in terms of its marine ecology and setting up of the plant is in direct violation of rules prescribed for its protection.

Many such as environmental activist Nityanand Jayraman have also spent years analysing the role of state authorities in the allegedly illegal inception of the plant.

Legal Hassles

In 2005, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted a report to the SC in which it found high concentrations of lead, copper, cadmium, chlorides, fluorides and arsenic in the samples of groundwater collected from residential areas surrounding the plant.

In 2013, the plant had been shut down following orders from the National Green Tribunal after hundreds of locals reported breathing problems, throat congestion and infection and nausea following a gas leak.

The Supreme Court also had in 2013 slapped a Rs 100 crore fine on Sterlite Copper for environmental damage over the years. The case had been led by Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) chief Vaiko.

However, the SC later allowed the plant to continue operations. It defended its judgment saying that though the plant was indeed causing environmental damage in Tuticorin, it was also generating high employment and revenue for the Centre and the state.

Vedanta Resources (London) is also facing charges internationally. Both Vedanta, along with its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines are facing legal action in British courts by Zambian villagers who have accused the companies’ mining operations of having polluted the local water there and of destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of locals.

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