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Environment ministry granted clearance even though mandatory public consultations were not held
The National Green Tribunal has suspended the environment clearance granted to the sponge iron plant of Scania Steel and Power Ltd in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had granted environment clearance to the project in 2008 even though the mandatory public hearing was not held for it. The tribunal bench, comprising chairman Justice A S Naidu and expert member G K Pandey, directed the ministry on February 9 to conduct the public hearing in the project-affected region and revisit the environment impact assessment (EIA) process of the project.
Scania Steel and Power (formerly Sidhi Vinayak Sponge Iron) was operating a 66,000 tonnes per annun (TPA) sponge iron plant before the EIA notification of 2006, which mandates environment clearance for such projects, came into effect. In 2008, the company applied to MoEF for expansion of the existing project. It proposed to enhance the production of sponge iron from 66,000 TPA to 1,32,000 TPA by adding another unit of 66,000 TPA capacity and also proposed installing a steel melting shop of 1,35,000 TPA capacity, a ferro-alloy plant of 75,000 TPA and a captive power plant of 25 MW.
The ministry granted clearance for the project in November 2008. However, no public hearing was conducted by the company which claimed the expansion of the existing project did not require public consultations. Ramesh Agrawal of Chhattisgarh-based non-profit Jan Chetna challenged the clearance in the National Environment Appellate Authority in 2009, saying MoEF has erroneously exempted the project from public hearing and the concerns of the project-affected people were not taken into account. Since the authority has been replaced by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the appeal was transferred to the NGT.
The bench, in its order, observed the EIA notification of 2006 exempts the expansion of only those projects from public hearing which have been already granted the clearance under the same notification. “The intention behind giving exemption under Clause 7(ii) with reference to public hearing could have been due to the fact that the public consultation process for the existing unit would have already been done as required under EIA Notification, 2006 and as such, public hearing again is not necessary,” said the order. Since, the existing plant of the company was not given environment clearance earlier and no public hearing was conducted, its expansion could not be exempted from the same, the tribunal bench observed.
Though the tribunal did not cancel the environment clearance for the project, it suspended it till the public hearing is conducted in the project-affected region. “The decision to exempt public consultation in the case in hand was that of the MoEF and Scania had no role to play...We feel that due to the error committed by the MoEF the EC (environment clearance) granted in favour of Scania should not be cancelled,” said the order. However, it said the clearance would be subject to the decision to be taken by MoEF after public consultation, and other directions.
EIA report faulty
The tribunal also found faults in the EIA report of the project and said the baseline data regarding meteorology, ambient air quality, noise quality,
surface and ground water quality and soil quality was unrealistic. It observed that the data were collected four months before the terms of reference (ToRs) for the EIA study was communicated to the company by MoEF. This, the tribunal said, defeated the very purpose of prescribing collection of latest data by MoEF in its TORs.
While NGT asked the ministry to cure the deficiency in EIA and re-visit the entire project, it pulled up the ministry for ignoring such loopholes in the EIA report during the project appraisal process. It directed MoEF to develop appropriate mechanism, to check the authenticity of environmental data reported in the EIA report. “Steps should also be taken for black-listing consultants found to have reported 'cooked data' or 'wrong data' and for producing sub-standard EIA/EMP report,” the tribunal said.
Ramesh Agrawal of Jan Chetna is hopeful the order will force the government to make the EIA process more authentic and transparent. “By asking the government to hold the public hearing in the project, the tribunal has upheld the importance of public participation in the development process. It has also made sure that the right of challenging a development process by the people aggrieved by it is not ignored,” he says.