Environment ministry and pollution control boards to decide whether existing pelletisation units can continue functioning till they obtain clearance
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has said that all stand-alone iron ore pelletisation units must seek environmental clearance (EC) from the concerned authorities. The statement came following the confusion about whether Ardent Steel’s pelletisation plant in Keonjhar district of Odisha requires an EC.
The judgement delivered on Tuesday by the central bench of NGT, chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar, has also asked the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and all state pollution control boards (SPCBs) to ensure immediately that no pelletisation plant in the country operates without EC.
Pelletising is part of steel making that involves conversion of iron ore fines into pellets. The use of pellets in the blast furnace helps in better flow of reactant gases inside it, and increases its overall efficiency and productivity. The iron ore pelletisation plant of Ardent Steel Limited in Keonjhar has a capacity to produce 0.6 million tones of pellets per annum (MTPA). It had obtained “consent to establish” from the Odisha pollution control board in November 2008 and “consent to operate” in October 2010, which was subsequently renewed by the board on a yearly basis. The last renewal was done in April 2013, which expired in March this year.
In the meanwhile, the company was planning to expand the capacity of its pelletisation unit from 0.6 MTPA to 2.1 MTPA and to add a sponge iron unit, iron ore washery, steel melting shop, rolling mill and a captive power plant to the existing pelletisation plant. It approached MoEF for an EC for the proposed expansion in May 2012. It was during such process that the confusion about requirement of the stand-alone pelletisation plant surfaced. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of MoEF during its meeting of June 2013 noted that the company has been operating the 0.6 MTPA iron ore pelletization plant without obtaining EC from the MoEF, which is illegal. In the absence of an EC of the pelletisation plant, consideration of the proposed expansion was put on hold by the committee till a decision was taken by MoEF. The MoEF vide letter dated December 12, 2013, asked the company to stop the operation of the pelletization unit until an EC is obtained.
Legal confusion between MoEF and SPCBs
Aggrieved by MoEF’s direction, Ardent Steel Limited approached NGT. While MoEF considered that “stand-alone” pelletisation units require EC under the provisions of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006, the company firmly held that such a clearance was not required. It was brought out that not just Odisha pollution control board, but several other SPCBs in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, have been granting ‘consents to establish’ and ‘consent to operate’ to ‘stand-alone’ pelletisation units without requiring them to obtain an EC.
During deliberations, the tribunal observed that MoEF and state authorities have a difference in understanding on the requirement of such clearance. The conflict is not new. The EAC during its meeting in December 2013 had clarified that iron ore pelletisation plants are “primary metallurgical industries”, which fall under category ‘A’ of the EIA Notification and require an EC from MoEF. However, the committee noted that “there is a conflict of opinion regarding applicability of EC for pellet plants between SPCBs and MoEF”. Noting such conflict, the EAC had recommended the ministry to send a communication to all SPCBs clarifying the status of iron ore pelletisation plants under the provisions of the EIA Notification. The committee had further noted that iron ore pellet plants, which are operating within the jurisdiction of various SPCBs without obtaining EC, may be advised to regularise their statutory approvals by applying to MoEF for the grant of EC within six months.
The NGT has now reaffirmed the EAC observations. However, it has left it to the MoEF and SPCBs to examine whether the units without an EC can remain operational during the time they apply for one and receive it.
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