The National Green Tribunal on Friday allowed UK-based Vedanta Group company, Sterlite Industries Ltd, to commence operation of its copper plant in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu.
A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar made it clear that Sterlite’s unit will start operating in the presence of a committee set up by the tribunal.
The four-member panel will comprise Member Secretary of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a member or engineer from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and two members of IIT, Madras who were part of a panel set up earlier by Chennai bench of NGT.
The committee will meet in a week’s time and in its presence Sterlite’s unit will began operation.
The bench also observed in its order of TNPCB directing closure of the Sterlite plant was passed in an abrupt manner based on mere apprehension of leakage of gas, without any scientific data to support the same.
“A mere apprehension would not be sufficient for passing such drastic orders,” the bench said.
“No scientific data, analysis, etc, has been placed before us to show emission in excess of prescribed parameters continued between March 23 to March 29,” the bench also said.
The NGT also said that the timing of the complaints against Sterlite and the alleged leak of gases “are not compatible to draw a conclusion that industry was offending.”
It also said that “in the facts and circumstances of the case, it is difficult to accept the contention” of the TNPCB that Sterlite’s plant was shut down as a precautionary measure.
The industry was allowed to operate for six days after the alleged incident of gas leakage on March 23, the bench also noted.
“This (TNPCB order) was not a precautionary measure but per se punitive,” the bench said.
The NGT also noted that the complaints against Sterlite’s copper plant, of endangering human life was raised from a village 8 km away from the unit.
The tribunal said if it was a case of excessive emission containing impermissible levels of harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2), persons near the unit would be more affected by release of such gas and by the time it reaches 8 km away, its impact would have reduced.
“This, though not a deterministic factor, is indicative of a possibility that no offence was being conducted by applicant,” the bench said.
The bench also observed that it is undisputed that the area where Sterlite’s unit is located is an industrial complex and there are a number of other industries there, including thermal power units.
“The TNPCB has not placed on record any determinative scientific data or reports to show that applicant industry (Sterlite) alone was responsible for the alleged emission of SO2 on March 23,” it said.
The tribunal also said that the TNPCB failed to discharge its obligation to ascertain whether there was leakage of gas and to support their claim by scientific data and analysis.
The tribunal in its oral order also clarified that the reasons in support of its conclusions would follow subsequently.
The NGT said as there is voluminous scientific data to be referred to, it will give the detailed reasons later.
The NGT’s order came on an appeal against the TNPCB order of closure of its plant following alleged leak of toxic gas from the plant affecting local residents on March 23.
In its oral order, the NGT noted that it was not disputed that Sterlite is one of the largest manufacturers of copper in the country and that before their unit was set up in Tuticorin, huge amount of copper was imported by India.
“Thus, they play a significant role in the economy at national and international levels,” the bench observed.
It also questioned the TNPCB’s “abrupt” decision to order closure of the plant without waiting for the report of a committee set up by the district collector of Tuticorin to inspect the industries in the industrial complex there and pinpoint the origin of the alleged gas leak of March 23.
On March 23, complaints were received from residents of Tuticorin town that there was alleged leak of sulphur dioxide gas from Sterlite’s unit and that it adversely affected them.
On March 29, the TNPCB had ordered the closure of the plant, following which, Sterlite had moved the NGT.
Sterlite’s copper plant will now not only commence operations in the presence of the committee, but the unit will also require the four-member panel’s permission to undertake its calibration process which is to be conducted on a weekly basis.
The panel has also been tasked with inspecting the plant and collecting samples of the emissions and ambient air and to prepare a comparative date of all its visits.
Sterlite will even require the panel’s permission to put the unit and its system’s in maintenance mode, the bench said, adding that if the unit’s systems require any improvement then the committee can submit a report to the NGT suggesting the same.
Meanwhile, the TNPCB was directed by the NGT to conduct a study of the area around the industrial complex and to find out if there exists any factors which could cause ill health in the people living there and submit a report by July 10.
The pollution control board was also asked by the tribunal to decide expeditiously Sterlite’s application for renewal of its consent to operate, when the company applies for the same.
The board was also directed by the bench to put in order its ambient air quality system and ensure that all the due data is collected from such system.