Chennai: Sterlite was a chronic defaulter, having caused wanton water and air pollution over the years and there was no need for allowing it to carry out maintenance work at its closed copper plant in Tuticorin, the Tamil Nadu government has contended in the Madras High Court. In its counter to a petition challenging the order to close the unit permanently and the interim plea, the government also claimed there had been improvement in the environment and quality of ground water in and around the copper plant after the unit was shut down last year.
When the matter came up for hearing Wednesday, a division bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and Nirmal Kumar took note of the submissions in the counter and after hearing the arguments, directed the state government to test the quality of air in the area. The petition was posted to April 23 for further hearing. The counter was filed by the state Environment and Forest Department and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNCB).
Sterlite, which has filed the petition in line with the Supreme Court’s recent suggestion, challenged the May 23, 2018 order refusing renewal of consent to the plant as well as permanent closure, terming them as wholly illegal, unconstitutional and ultra vires. The closure order was issued in the backdrop of protests by locals against the copper plant turning violent and resulting in the death of 13 people in police firing on May 22, 2018.
The National Green Tribunal later allowed the opening of the copper unit, but the apex court had on February 18 set aside the order. It, however, gave liberty to Sterlite to approach the high court against the closure order. In its interim prayer, the Vedanta group has sought permission to take up maintenance work at the plant saying several hazardous chemicals were stored there. The government submitted that since the unit was shut down in May last year, there has been a drastic improvement in the ground water standards in and around the plant.
The pollution caused by the industry has led to major health risks for the local populace, causing higher rate of miscarriages and infant mortality, greater frequency of cancer, and also made the ground water unfit for domestic consumption and drinking by cattle, it submitted. Contending that the interim prayer cannot be granted, the state government counter alleged Vedanta was a chronic defaulter, having caused wanton water and air pollution over its years of operation. It had brazenly operated in open defiance of law, leading to grave deterioration of ground water quality, it submitted.
Pointing that hazardous material such as copper concentrate and residual acids were being maintained and removed from the unit under the direct supervision of local level monitoring committee, it said there was no immediate danger to the environment as claimed by the petitioner firm. Also, most of the chemicals had been removed from the factory after the district collector on October 9, 2018 gave permission to Sterlite for engaging 250 numbers of manpower for the purpose.
A list of chemicals remained to be removed as on March 4 was furnished to the court. The counter said there was no grave urgency at this stage which deserved the intervention of the court. Alleging that Vedanta had made a blatant misrepresentation of the actual condition of the unit, the counter said the report titled ‘Sterlite Copper Plant Health Assessment’ was dated January 25, 2019 whereas the images that were annexed were outdated and were of August 2018.
With regard to care and maintenance of equipment and other measures, the counter said the industry was at liberty to make a valid representation to the monitoring committee, which will pass appropriate orders after considering various factors. Referring to the petitioner’s claim about its investment of Rs 3,000 crore and meeting 30 to 40 per cent of the domestic demand of copper, the counter said economical consideration cannot be a ground for running the unit when it causes irreparable injury to the general public.
It also reminded that the unit was fined with an exemplary amount of Rs 100 crore by the Supreme Court on previous occasions for environmental restitution, the government counsel said the unit was closed two times on the orders of the High Court.