The Madras High Court on Tuesday refused to order reopening of the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper smelting plant, located in a government industrial park in Thoothukudi district, due to environmental concerns.

TAMIL NADU
High Court rejects plea to reopen Sterlite plant
Mohamed Imranullah S.
CHENNAI 19 AUGUST 2020 00:06 IST
UPDATED: 19 AUGUST 2020 00:06 IST

Court dismisses all 10 writ petitions filed by Vedanta challenging various executive orders
The Madras High Court on Tuesday refused to order reopening of the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper smelting plant, located in a government industrial park in Thoothukudi district, due to environmental concerns.

Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan rejected the argument that the closure of the unit by the State government and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) was a knee-jerk reaction following the deaths of 13 protesters in police firing on May 22, 2018. They held that the copper unit fell under the ‘red category industry’, and therefore, it ought not to have been established inside the industrial park. Such highly polluting industries must be permitted only in areas classified as ‘special hazardous use zones’, they said.

Pointing out that the copper plant was situated within a radius of 25 km from the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, the judges said it had escaped relocation only because of a delay in notifying the national park since 2003.

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“It is not clear as to why Tamil Nadu is sitting tight on the proposal. Are there any hidden beneficiaries who would benefit by delaying the publication of the notification?” the judges asked. The court said the plant would have no option but to be shifted out after the notification.

The Bench recalled that the plant had long been accused of polluting the environment, and the Supreme Court too had, in 2013, directed it to pay ₹100 crore as compensation for the damage it had caused to the environment.

Though the company argued that past incidents could not be taken into account now, the judges said the theory of ‘washing off’ could not be applied to the present case, and that it was fallacious to argue that past misconducts would stand wiped off on payment of compensation.

The judgment, running to 815 pages, also upheld the powers of the State government and TNPCB to order closure and permanent sealing of the copper plant under the provisions of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974.

Dismissing all 10 writ petitions filed by Vedanta challenging orders passed by the government and TNPCB refusing consent to operate, disconnecting power supply and closing and sealing the premises, the Bench said, “The petitioner has no fundamental right to establish a polluting industry.”

Authoring the verdict, Justice Sivagnanam held the petitioner responsible for having dumped 3.52 lakh tonnes of copper slag by obstructing the course of Uppar river, thereby causing floods. He said compensation for the damage caused due to the floods should be recovered from the company.

The Bench also pointed out that the Sterlite copper plant was given permission in 1999 to produce 391 tonnes of blister copper per day and 1,060 tonnes of sulphuric acid. However, the quantum was allowed to be increased gradually to 2,400 tonnes of blister copper per day in 2010. Public hearing was given the go-by while granting permission for increasing the production capacity in 2010.

“The chain of events will clearly reveal that the petitioner has been a chronic defaulter taking advantage of the slackness on the part of the regulator,” the court said.

After the delivery of the verdict, senior counsel C. Aryama Sundaram, representing Vedanta, urged the court to order maintenance of status quo for three or at least two weeks so that no coercive steps could be taken by the government until the company goes on appeal to the Supreme Court.

However, Justice Sivagnanam refused to pass any such orders, on the ground that the court becomes functus officio after the delivery of the judgment. He also delinked a writ petition filed by an anti-Sterlite activist, Fatima, to order the immediate demolition of the copper plant.

The judge stated that Vedanta had filed a case in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court challenging the cancellation of the allotment of land inside the industrial park, and had obtained an interim stay. Therefore, the plea for demolition could be heard along with that case, he said.

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