Supreme Court rejects Vedanta’s interim plea to inspect, operate closed Sterlite copper unit at Tuticorin

The company suggested that the plant could be run for 30 days under the supervision of an expert committee appointed by the court

Updated - December 02, 2020 03:16 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2020 02:02 pm IST - New Delhi

Vedanta is producing 36% of copper demand of the country, the apex court was told. File

Vedanta is producing 36% of copper demand of the country, the apex court was told. File

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a proposal made by Vedanta to operate its closed Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi for 30 days under the supervision of an expert committee appointed by the court.

Also read: T.N. objects to any move to reopen Sterlite

The company mooted the idea so that the court could ascertain whether the plant was complying with pollution norms. Vedanta said its plant met 36% need for copper in the country and it was not in public interest to keep it closed.

But a Bench led by Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, in a short order, refused the proposal point-blank.

Tamil Nadu government, represented by senior advocate K.V. Viswanathan and Additional Advocate General Balaji Srinivasan, said the proposal was only a “ruse to open” a plant which had been a polluting one for over 20 years. Slag was dumped all over Thoothukudi in 11 places. The Madras High Court had ordered its permanent closure and sealing. The plant has been closed since May 2018.

Also read: Vedanta made at least ₹20,000 cr. in 20 years: TNPCB

The Supreme Court said it would hear the main appeal filed by the company against the High Court order later.

On Wednesday, senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for Vedanta, argued that the question whether the plant complied with pollution norms or not could be ascertained by the Supreme Court only if it was allowed to resume operations for 30 days.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating... Can this country afford the closure of a plant which takes care of 36% need of copper? I cannot harm public interest,” Mr. Singhvi submitted.

‘Upgraded periodically’

Mr. Singhvi said the plant, established in 1995, was upgraded periodically with the best available technologies. Its overall asset value was ₹3,630 crore.

Also read: 'Sterlite plant has polluted groundwater, Uppar river'

The factory employed 4,000 people directly and another 20,000 indirectly. The closure of the plant has affected the lives of two lakh dependents by virtue of downstream industries.

Its contribution to Central exchequer has been ₹2,559 crore. Besides, the plant had contributed to 7% of the traffic to Thoothukudi port. The unit’s closure has resulted in India becoming a net importer of refined copper after 18 years.

Senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for the State pollution authorities, countered that the “trial run” proposal was an “ingenious” way to re-open the factory without arguing the main appeal against Madras High Court’s decision of permanent closure.

Also read: Effects of pollution caused by Sterlite plant in 1997 can be seen today on Thoothukudi soil: HC

Mr. Srinivasan submitted that the purported basis of seeking such an “extraordinary prayer” was to enable ascertainment of compliances in 2020 when the plant has been shut down on account of non-compliances and pollution in 2013-2018 and beyond.

He said the company through “deliberate half-truths” was trying to actually restore the plant and create a fait accompli .

“Now they (Vedanta) want a trial run of 30 days while earlier they had cried hoarse that operations cannot be started within a short period as the plant was in a state of disrepair,” the Tamil Nadu government countered.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, for the local residents, termed the plant as a “persistent polluter and a chronic defaulter”.

“When rain comes, slag seeps into the river,” he submitted.

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