Madras HC stays expansion of Sterlite copper smelter; power supply cut

Protests against the expansion of the smelter have been going on for three months

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Thursday 24 May 2018

Protests against the copper plant, which is one of India’s biggest, have been going on for over three months. Credit: ReutersA day after 12 protesters calling for the plant’s shutdown were killed in police firing that snowballed into a “public emergency”, Tamil Nadu’s pollution control board disconnected the power supply to the Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi city in south Tamil Nadu in the early hours of today while the Madras High Court ordered Vedanta Ltd, the Indian subsidiary of British mining and energy conglomerate Vedanta Resources Plc that runs the plant, to halt its expansion.

Protests against the copper plant, which is one of India’s biggest, have been going on for over three months, with the protesters saying the plant is a major source of pollution, including groundwater and air, besides posing a risk to fisheries.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has also ordered the water and power supply to the plant to be disconnected. Orders to close the plant were issued by the chairman yesterday, according to a report by The Hindu, after the officials during their visits to the plants on May 18 and 19 found that Sterlite was carrying out activities to resume the copper production.

Meanwhile, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, while ordering Sterlite to stop the construction of its 1200 tonne/day second unit, also directed the authorities to hold a public hearing in the next four months (23 September) before granting environmental clearance. The ruling by the court was based on a public interest litigation filed by Fathima Babu, head of the Anti-Killer Sterlite People’s Movement, who in her petition alleged that the environmental clearances were granted to the second copper plant without any public consultation, as mandated by the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986.

Eleven people were killed on May 22 when the Tamil Nadu police opened fire on the agitating protesters who were pelting stones and toppling police vehicles. One more person died in firing yesterday in Anna Nagar area of the city, taking the toll in the incident to 12, on the 100th day of opposition against Sterlite’s proposed expansion.

The violence also came on a day when Vedanta Resources Plc reported better-than-expected growth in full-year core profit and revenue, with Chairman Anil Agarwal saying in a statement  that he “looks forward to another strong year for the company.” The company added that it is working with regulators to expedite restarting its copper smelter in Tamil Nadu, while Agarwal in an interview to Financial Times yesterday said he plans to step back from running the company.

“The people are protesting as they want the old plant to be shut down permanently and the new plant not to be constructed”, Nityanand Jayaraman, environmental activist and writer based in Chennai told Down to Earth. He has been following the issue for over 15 years now.

The deaths of protesters have fired up the political opposition, with both the state and the central government being blamed for not handling the situation well. The central government has also sought a situation report from the Tamil Nadu government. Meanwhile, the state government has written to Internet service providers operating in Thoothukudi and the neighbouring districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari to suspend internet services for five days in view of “antisocial” elements exploiting the situation through social media.

Sterlite and its parent company Vedanta have been in conflict with the people of Tuticorin and the courts and environmental institutions for the past 20 years. The plant has either been shut down or has voluntarily closed down operations multiple times during this duration, but somehow they have been able to find a way out to continue with the production of copper and even planned an expansion of the existing plant that would be the second largest in the world. As soon as some problem arises or an appeal is made by an NGO or a concerned citizen, the courts or the TNPCB order the plant to be shutdown. The company then appeals against the verdicts in another court of law and gets around the initial verdict. All this, while the people of Tuticorin suffer in the pollution caused by the plant and come together to protest against it.

The plant first started functioning in 1998 and immediately met with environmental roadblocks. A Madras High Court ordered National Environmental Research Institute (NEERI) report from the same year had found that it flouted a series of very basic environmental norms. For instance, it is mandated for a plant to be located at least 25 km away from an eco sensitive area, while the Sterlite plant is located within 25 km of four of the islands in the Gulf of Mannar which is an eco sensitive area. The second norm which was flouted was the development of a green belt of 250 m width around the battery limit of the plant. This was later reduced to just 25 m by TNPCB. Sterlite said that the area that had been provided to it inside the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) was not enough to allow for a 250 m green belt.

The report had also found that the plant was was releasing hazardous heavy metals like arsenic, lead, selenium, aluminum and copper into the water and dangerous gaseous pollutants into the air. The court ordered the plant to be shutdown but reversed its order in just one week, allowing the plant to be functional again at full capacity. It ordered NEERI to submit another report which was done in February 1999. This report gave a green signal to Sterlite to continue with its production until a comprehensive analysis was completed. This was completed in 2003. After this, Sterlite was able to produce record amounts of copper, much more than the 70,000 tonnes allowed by the TNPCB. In 2004 the company produced 1,75,242 tonnes of copper, according to The News minute report by Jayaraman. Currently the plant produces 4,00,000 tonnes per year and was in plans to set up another plant of similar capacity. This is what the people of Tuticorin have been protesting against for the past 100 days or so.

Again in 2010 the Madras high court ordered the plant to be shut down. Sterlite challenged the order in the Supreme Court which directed NEERI to conduct detailed analysis of the factory site and report back on the state of environment and pollution there. The report found more than permissible levels of groundwater pollutants in the areas surrounding the plant but overall gave a clean chit to Sterlite.

Looking at the NEERI report, instead of upholding the lower court’s order the Supreme Court directed the company to pay up 100 crores as fine for polluting the city and causing damage to its environment. This amount was paid up by the company but activists like Jayaraman argue that the amount is paltry as compared to the enormous difficulties faced by the people and degradation of the environment of Tuticorin.

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