The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Saturday set aside the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to shut down the Vedanta group’s Sterlite Copper plant at Toothukudi, terming it “non-sustainable and unjustifiable”. The tribunal also directed the state pollution control board to pass a fresh order of renewal of consent, paving the way for reopening the plant, which caters to 35-40 per cent of the country’s copper demand.
The renewal of consent by the pollution control board is an authorisation for the firm to handle hazardous substances.
The NGT order comes after a three-member committee constituted by it to look into the allegations of environmental pollution said no notice or opportunity of hearing was given to Vedanta before the closure of the plant. The committee, headed by former Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice Tarun Agrawal, had also said the grounds on which the pollution control board ordered the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant were not so grievous in nature that they justified its permanent closure.
The six-member bench of the NGT, led by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, said the plant would also be entitled to restoration of electricity for its operations. The green tribunal also directed Vedanta to spend Rs 1 billion within a period of three years on projects like water supply, hospital and health services, and skill development in the area. The copper unit has remained closed since March 27, initially for maintenance and later due to the state pollution control board's refusal to give it consent to operate.
The state government had shut the unit permanently following the death of 13 people during a police firing on May 22. The victims were part of a crowd protesting against the expansion of the plant.
Tamil Nadu had refused to grant the consent to operate and ordered the closure, stating that the company had not followed certain environmental norms. It had alleged that Sterlite had not furnished the groundwater analysis report, not removed copper slag stored around the Uppar river, and not analysed parameters of heavy metals in the ambient air quality around the unit.
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The NGT, however, rejected all these grounds.
During arguments at the NGT, Vedanta had submitted that it had been suffering a daily loss of Rs 50 million due to the closure of the copper unit.
Sterlite, Vedanta’s arm, has invested around Rs 30 billion for establishing the plant. Prices of copper in the country has risen by around 20 per cent following the closure of the plant, the company had said in its submissions before the NGT.
Following the order, Sterlite said it would study the order in detail and take all steps required to restart the operations in accordance with the NGT guidelines. "We welcome the order given by the National Green Tribunal on allowing us to resume operations of our copper smelter at Thoothukudi," said Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath.
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The Tamil Nadu government, on the other hand, said it would challenge the NGT order in the Supreme Court.