New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) today allowed mining major Vedanta to enter its administrative unit inside its Sterlite copper plant at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, observing that no environmental damage would be caused by allowing access to the administrative section.
A bench headed by chairperson A.K. Goel, however, said the plant would remain closed and the company would not have access to its production unit and directed the district magistrate to ensure this.
“The district magistrate will ensure that the appellants do not have access to the production unit. We are concerned with the environment. No environmental damage can be caused by allowing access to the administrative section,” the bench said.
The green panel also directed the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board to submit an analysis of the baseline pollution data of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu Ltd in Tuticorin to ascertain the level of pollution.
The matter will be next heard on August 20.
At the outset, the bench, also comprising Justice Jawad Rahim and S.P. Wangdi, rejected the state government’s submission that the tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case and said that it would hear the case on merits.
Senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for the state government, said the tribunal should pass a written order if it was rejecting its objection over maintainability of Vedanta’s plea.
Senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for the state pollution control board, said that Vedanta was indulging in “forum shopping” and the NGT should not entertain it.
The tribunal, however, said that it would proceed ahead with the case on merits.
Senior advocate C.A. Sundaram, appearing for Vedanta, said this is a “completely motivated” litigation as no prior notices were issued to the copper smelting plant before issuing the closure order.
“The company produces 40% of India’s copper and if we shut down, then we have to go back to importing copper from China and Germany. Not one order issued to us refers to pollution, it just said that people have complained. We are a zero discharge unit. It is a completely politically motivated litigation where truckloads of people were brought from outside to protest. Today, there are protests on the other side as the entire area has become unemployed the senior advocate said while blaming the politicians for causing a mistrust.
The tribunal then asked the senior lawyer whether “they are polluting?”.
Sundaram replied in the negative and said, “Give us a chance for a month. We will run and show you that we are not polluting.”
He said that there were around 65 units, of which seven are red category units, but Sterlite was being singled out.
The state pollution control board, however, said that Sterlite was causing air and water pollution and to protect the environment, it ordered closure of its units.
Seeking scientific data from the state pollution control board, the bench observed, “You keep on saying Sterlite is polluting but not providing any substantiative data for that.”
Reacting on the tribunal’s order, the company said in a statement, “We welcome the National Green Tribunal’s decision to accept the maintainability of our petition and hear the same. We further welcome the NGT’s interim order that gives us access to the administrative section of the plant.”
On July 30, the court had refused to grant any interim relief to Vedanta, which has challenged the Tamil Nadu government’s order to permanently shut down its Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi, even as the firm termed the government action “political”.
On July 5, the tribunal had issued notices to the state government and the pollution board seeking their responses after Tamil Nadu raised preliminary objections with regard to the maintainability of Vedanta’s plea.
The Tamil Nadu government had, on May 28, ordered the state pollution control board to seal and “permanently” close the mining group’s copper plant following violent protests over pollution concerns.
Earlier in April, the Tamil Nadu pollution control board had rejected Sterlite’s plea to renew the Consent To Operate certification, saying the company had not complied with the stipulated conditions.
Following this, the government issued a permanent closure notice to the plant.
Vedanta’s plea in the NGT seeks permission to operate the unit and a direction to declare as unlawful and illegal the exercise of powers by the Tamil Nadu government in passing the closure order under section 18(1)(b) of the Water Act.
Sterlite’s factory had made headlines in March 2013 when a gas leak led to the death of one person and injuries to several others, after which then chief minister J. Jayalalithaa had ordered its closure.
The company had then appealed to the NGT, which had overturned the government order. The state had then moved the Supreme Court against it and the case is still pending.
The Supreme Court had then ordered the company to pay Rs 100 crore as compensation for polluting environment.
Following the latest protests and police firing, the plant was closed on March 27.
After Sterlite announced its plans to expand the Tuticorin plant, villagers around it started fresh protests that continued for over 100 days, culminating in the May 22 police firing on protestors that claimed 13 lives and left scores injured.