On March 23, 2013, Tuticorin woke up to eye irritation and severe suffocation. Panic struck residents came out on to the streets. Complaints poured in at the Collector Ashish Kumar’s office of gas emission from ‘unknown source’. It was later found to have emitted from the Sterlite Industries India Limited (SIIL), a subsidiary of UK-based mining group Vedanta.
What followed was a slew of inspections, protests and legal battles. On March 30, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the operation at Sterlite’s copper smelter be stopped. It observed that ‘more than permissible level’ of harmful sulphur dioxide was released from the plant and that had caused the health problems among the residents in and around the plant. On April 2, Supreme Court fined the plant with Rs. 100 crore for causing environmental damages to the surrounding between 1997 and 2012.
What is the history and background?
Sterlite had not been having a good time in India. Its attempts to open units in Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra failed. It was in Tamil Nadu, that it could acquire clearance and approval from Ministry of Environment and Forests, TNPCB and the state government to establish copper smelter at the SIPCOT complex in Meelavittan village, Tuticorin. But all was not good for SIIL since its inception in 1997.
Environmental groups, political parties ( left and MDMK) were against the setting up of the plant and it has been facing widespread protests from farmers, fishermen and traders for alleged inadequate safety measures. They fear that the effluents from the plant pollute the sea, soil and the crops – which can affect their livelihood. The legal battle, waged by MDMK, industrial accidents, spreading of poisonous gas had led to the closure of the plant at couple of other occasions in the past.
The emission on March 23 was found to be 2950 milligrams per cubic metre, whereas the permissible level is 1,250 milligrams per cubic metre.
Why is sulphur dioxide hazardous?
Inhaling of sulphur dioxide can sometimes be fatal. Long-time exposure causes respiratory problems such as asthma. It can affect the skin and eyes as well.
Why are the environmental groups against it?
Environment activists point out that the plant is located within 25km from the Gulf of Mannar which is home to 3,600 species of fauna and flora. They feel that the pollution from the smelter could affect these species. A 2005 government study said that the smelter leaked arsenic and heavy metals into the soil and water.
How has SIIL reacted?
SIIL has been denying accusation of high level emission. It has said that the plant has been functioning for 17 years with the approval and consents from the regulatory bodies. It maintains that it has been strictly adhering to the norms and has been upgrading the technology based on the recommendation of TNPCB and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).
What is the status of the plant now?
Sterlite now awaits a verdict from National Green Tribunal, which has decided to appoint an expert committee to review the situation in the district. The report would be submitted on April 29.