Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has strongly condemned the killing of innocent protesters in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. The residents of the area were protesting against the proposed doubling of capacity of the Vedanta group’s Sterlite copper plant. Further, citing long-festering pollution concerns, they were demanding permanent closure of the plant.
“We condemn the killing of innocent protestors. Considering the history of this plant, the residents were justified in protesting against the expansion. This plant has polluted the environment and flouted standards with impunity for the past 20 years”, said Sunita Narain, Director General, CSE.
The 400,000-tonne-capacity smelting plant of Sterlite has been at the centre of pollution controversy since it was proposed in 1995. This plant was rejected by three states – Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra – because of its highly polluting nature; before it was allowed to be set-up in Tamil Nadu. While taking Environment Clearance (EC), the company had flouted norms by misrepresenting facts and giving a faulty Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Firstly, it said that the plant is not located within 25 km of ecologically sensitive area, which was found to be wrong as the plant is located near Munnar Marine National Park. In addition, the company submitted a faulty rapid EIA report without conducting any public hearing.
Since its commencement in 1997, the plant has been found on numerous occasions to flout the pollution norms with impunity and foregone permit requirements by pollution regulators, as observed by the courts. In fact, a Supreme Court (SC) monitoring committee in 2004 found the plant had not provided adequate infrastructure and facilities for management of highly toxic arsenic-containing wastes. The plant was also found to be emitting sulphur dioxide far in excess of the permissible standards.
In 2010, the Madras High Court closed the plant because it was polluting the environment and had flouted norms while setting up the plant. In 2013, the Supreme Court imposed a penalty of Rs 100 crore on the company for polluting the environment.
In March 2013, a toxic gas leak from the plant made several hundreds of residents living in its vicinity sick. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered a closure of the smelting unit on March 29, but the Principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) gave a clean chit to Sterlite and revoked the closure order based on technicalities.
Sterlite stands as a classic case of failed environmental governance. Years of violations and concerns raised again and again by residents of the area seems to have mattered little.
“With such a poor track record on environment for nearly two decades, a plant like Sterlite’s copper unit, would not have been allowed to operate anywhere in the world. However, not only does it continue to operate in Tuticorin, but is also planning to double its capacity. This reflects the abject failure of the environmental governance in the country. It shows how weak and toothless are our pollution regulators” said Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSE.
The big question today is, whether Sterlite will get a clean chit once again and be allowed to expand? Or whether regulators will come together, and court observations will be considered closely to look into the matter in people’s interest.
“Considering its history of irresponsibility and its location in an ecologically sensitive area, we strongly recommend that this plant should be closed down and an environmental de-contamination plan should be implemented to clean-up the contamination caused by the plant’s operation. This work can immediately start with Rs. 100 crore that the SC had imposed five years back” emphasized Bhushan.