Expert panel finds emissions from Vedanta subsidiary's copper smelting plant in Tuticorin to be within limits; state's contention that the plant is a public health hazard brushed aside
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has allowed the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, that comprises a copper smelting unit and a sulphuric acid plant, to continue with its operation. Sterlite, a subsidiary of mining and metals giant Vedanta, was in news recently after the Supreme Court slapped slapped a Rs 100 crore fine on it for polluting the environment. A week before that, suspected toxic gas leak from the plant on March 23 made people living in the plant vicinity sick.
The tribunal bench headed by justice Swatanter Kumar, however, noted that “the company is not in violation of any air quality standards prescribed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), and is neither an existing pollutant nor is a threat of future pollution resulting in health hazards”. The order came following a special expert committee report, which was constituted by the NGT through its order dated May 31, to examine the compliance status of the Sterlite plant.
The May 31 order was given on an appeal filed by Sterlite Industries, opposing the closure order against it by TNPCB on March 29. The state pollution control board had said that an incident of gas (SO2) leak occurred from the plant on March 23, due to its faulty operations, violating ambient air quality standards and causing health problems such as eye irritation and breathing discomfort among residents in the vicinity. However, NGT in its order said that the accusation of the state agency did not have any scientific backing and was abrupt and arbitrary. The bench passed an interim order permitting the plant to commence operations under the supervision of an expert committee.
The five-member expert committee, headed by J S Kamyotra, member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, was directed by NGT to examine the status of compliance by the plant through site inspection conducted at least three times within a month. Other members of the committee included, S Balaji, member secretary of TNPCB, M Murugan, district environmental engineer with TNPCB, and two professors, P S T Sai and Ligy Philip of IIT Chennai. The findings of the committee were tabled before the NGT on July 10.
Expert committee observations
The expert committee visited the Sterlite plant four times between June 7 and June 30 for inspection. According to Kamyotra, “the committee did not find any non-compliance by the company during their monitoring period, and air emissions were within the limits as prescribed by the TNPCB”.
The committee visited all the 13 monitoring sites set up by the industry to affirm the appropriateness of the monitoring locations to collect data. The calibration facilities were also rechecked to ensure quality of data. The report noted that the company has been conducting monitoring in these locations for the past 10 years. The committee also conducted monitoring in additional 13 stations, located within a distance of eight kilometre of the plant.
The report noted that the stack emission data collected for SO2 using online system as well as manual monitoring during the inspection are well within the prescribed norms. The maximum concentration of SO2 recorded was 129.45 mg/Nm3, corresponding to 0.32 kg per tonne of sulphuric acid produced. This is very much within the stipulated limits of 1 kg per tonne of sulphuric acid produced. The report further noted that in case of any emergency, the industry has a disaster management plan in place.
Based on its overall monitoring and review, the committee outlined certain recommendations for compliance by the company. C A Sundaram, counsel representing Sterlite Industries Ltd, said that the “recommendations set forth are for further improvement in performance of the plant, rather than to address violations. The company agrees to comply with the recommendations in a time bound manner.”
The expert committee brushed aside TNPCB's contention that the plant was a health hazard. Committee member Murugan said “there are incidences of health hazard in the area, but that cannot be precisely attributed to the plant operations. The plant is located within SIPCOT Industrial Cluster, where there are several large and medium scale industries which contribute to varying levels of SO2 emissions.” He further added that “Sterlite Industries has been conducting health survey in the area regularly every six months, involving two independent hospitals, and has produced the health survey report to the TNPCB.”
Raju Ramachandran, counsel for TNPCB, argued before the tribunal that the expert committee report does not address the issue of health hazard. But it was noted at the hearing that the committee was supposed to look at the compliance primarily, and that a report on whether it is a public health hazard is under preparation.
Case in Supreme Court
Unhappy with the turn of events in the tribunal, TNPCB had moved Supreme Court against the tribunal's May 31 order. The Supreme Court in an order dated June 10 directed TNPCB to submit a copy of the expert committee report. The case will be heard by the apex court on Wednesday.
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