NGT reverses closure order for Sterlite’s Tuticorin plant

Tribunal-appointed committee holds meeting in Chennai; Vedanta subsidiary awaits permission to resume operations

By Srestha Banerjee
Published: Friday 07 June 2013

Copper smelting plant of Sterlite in Tuticorin is at the centre of controversy

Sterlite Industries’ copper smelting unit in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, which was closed about two months ago on the orders of the state pollution control board (PCB) following a suspected gas leak, is expected to become operational soon. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has reversed the order of the Tamil Nadu PCB. The tribunal bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar, in an order issued on May 31, noted that the state PCB “has passed the impugned order on an apprehension which was not supported by any scientific data”. Without such scientific backing, the bench considered the order of the state authority to be “abrupt” and “arbitrary”.

NGT has permitted the plant to commence operations under the supervision of a committee comprising the member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), member secretary and environmental engineer of the Tamil Nadu PCB, and two members from IIT-Madras. The committee has been directed to visit the industry at least thrice a month to monitor the functioning of the plant, the anti-pollution control equipment, and the analysers and submit its report to the tribunal by July 10.

The committee held its first meeting in Chennai on Friday, informed the office staff of J S Kamyotra, member secretary of CPCB. “The company is now waiting on the modalities to be decided by the commitee to start its operation of the Tuticorin unit,” said Suresh Bose of Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of mining and metals giant Vedanta.

State pollution board moves apex court

Tamil Nadu PCB has, meanwhile, challenged the order of NGT, which questions the board's actions in ordering closure of the copper smelter plant,  in the apex court.

The 400,000-tonne-capacity smelting plant of UK-based Vedanta Group company, Sterlite Industries Ltd, has been at the centre of controversy since it commenced operations. Several gas leaks have been reported over the years, the most recent being on March 23, 2013.

In 2010, Tuticorin residents, including Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) chief Gopalaswamy Vaiko, had filed a petition in the Madras High Court and accused Sterlite of ignoring the concerns of residents, especially the fishing community who were losing livelihood because of pollution caused by the plant. The court had issued the closure order in response to this petition. But Sterlite obtained a stay from the Supreme Court  and continued to operate. The apex court, however, set up a committee comprising officials from Tamil Nadu PCB and CPCB to investigate the plant’s environmental impact. In April, the Supreme Court slapped a penalty of Rs 100 crore on Sterlite for polluting water, soil and air of Tuticorin for two decades.

Leak or calibration error

The main contention between Sterlite industries, the appellant in the case, and Tamil Nadu PCB revolves around whether on  March 23 this year, the higher values of sulphur dioxide (SO2) reflected in the SO2 analyser (see box) data at the plant was a result of excess emission due to leakage, or a calibration issue.

Analyse this
An SO2 analyzer is used to measure the quantity of SO2 in ambient air. Typically in India, UV fluorescence detection technology is used for such measurement and record the results online. Though this is the common technique for measurement of SO2, it can show errors because of problems in calibration. The other technique of SO2 measurement is based on Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). This technology has advantage over the fluorescence detection technology, as it does not require frequent calibration, and can measure more determinants at a given time.

After complaints from the public regarding excessive release of emissions by the Tuticorin copper smelting plant, the Tamil Nadu PCB issued a show cause notice to Sterlite on March 24, alleging that an incident of SO2 emission exceeding the permissible limit had taken place at the plant and it violated the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. It was further alleged that that the machines and instruments attached to the plant were not working properly, which caused excess emission of SO2 and related health hazards. A closure order was given to the unit on March 29, following which Sterlite filed an appeal before NGT on April 1.

NGT, while deliberating over the case, concluded that Tamil Nadu PCB’s decision was of little merit. The bench observed that the allegation brought about by PCB on excess emission of SO2 by the company is not backed by any scientific data. The argument made by the PCB that the closure notice of the unit was a precautionary measure following the March 23 incident was actually not a precautionary step but a punitive one, the bench said.

It was further noted that the site inspection carried out by PCB officers on March 24 did not find any problem with the plant’s operation. They reported that “presently, all remains normal and the plant is operating at its full capacity”. The team of experts appointed by NGT through its order dated April 12, to assess and appraise the actual working condition of the SO2 analyser and also measure SO2 emissions at the unit, did not make any adverse comments in their report regarding the functioning of the plant. They, in fact, found that “largely the functioning of the plant is in consonance with the scientific requirements and notified parameters”.

The allegations of the operation of the copper smelting unit having an adverse effect on public health is unsubstantiated, said NGT. It noted that health issues were raised by people living in villages about eight kilometres away. The bench noted this was improbable as people living close by are likely to be affected first by emissions.

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