SC refuses to change NGT order on Sterlite

The News

  • The Supreme Court refused to interfere with a NGT order allowing Vedanta to access the administrative unit of the closed Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi.

 

Timeline

  • In April 2018, the TN State’s Pollution Control Board had rejected Sterlite’s plea to renew its Consent to Operate certification over pollution concerns.
  • Following violent protests, the Tamil Nadu government in May 2018 ordered the permanent closure of the copper plant.
  • Vedanta had appealed NGT which is hearing cases on the matter.
  • In an order, the NGT allowed Vedanta to enter the administrative unit of its Sterlite copper plant but barred access to its production unit.
  • Besides it directed that the plant would continue to remain closed.
  • The Tamil Nadu government had challenged the order on the grounds that NGT had no jurisdiction to hear Vedanta’s plea.

 

What is Tamil Nadu’s contention?

  • The TN government had ordered the closure of the plant under Section 18 (1)(b) of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
  • According to TN, an order under the act is not appealable before the NGT.
  • Further, according to TN, NGT has jurisdiction over civil disputes relating to the environment under Section 14 and Section 16 of the NGT Act 2010 and not a policy decision taken by the State government.
  • According to the state, closure of the plant is a policy decision taken by the State of Tamil Nadu under Article 48-A of the Constitution of India coupled with Section 18 (1) (b) of the Water Act, 1974.

 

Background

  • Sterlite Copper unit has been in operation in Tuticorin since 1997.

 

Past Controversies

  • In September 2010, the Madras High Court had directed Vedanta to shut down the Tuticorin plant following petitions.
  • The petitions were seeking suitable action over alleged failure to take safety
  • Following this the TN government had ordered measures due to which there were pollution and industrial accidents at the plant.
  • In March 2013, people living in the vicinity of the plant complained of eye irritation and suffocation.
  • Sterlite’s factory was closed by TN government in March 2013 when a gas leak led to the death of one person.
  • The company had appealed to the NGT which had overturned the government’s order. The state had moved the Supreme Court which had then ordered the company to pay Rs 1 billion as compensation for polluting the environment.
  • Recent protest is over the brownfield expansion of the plant.
  • Vedanta had announced expansion of a copper smelter of Sterlite Copper to a capacity of 8,00,000 tonnes per year.

 

Environmental issues

The environmentalists have cited following issues

  • Rise in throat and eye cancer cases in the area.
  • Copper Smelters are water guzzlers and may lead to depletion of drinking water and shortage for agricultural supply.
  • Smelter with shorter chimney stacks prevents dispersion of air pollutants
  • Copper smelters release sulphur dioxide and dust particles leading to air pollution.
  • According to them, Sterlite has a poor design of pollution mitigation infrastructure.

 

 

Impact of closure of the plant

  • With a capacity to produce 4 lakh tonnes per year, the plant has a share of 35 percent in India’s primary copper market.
  • With India’s copper consumption increasing at a rate of 7 to 8 percent per year.
  • It is estimated at 2 million tonne in the next decade.
  • With the supply strain, India may turn into a net importer of copper by 2020.
  • The closure of the plant has already led to rise in copper prices.
  • Job losses as plant employs 3,500 people directly and many thousands more indirectly.

 

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