Sterlite Industries Back in Business


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in its judgment upheld its interim order of May 31, 2013, and has allowed the Tuticorin Copper Smelter of Sterlite Industries to continue to operate.

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Sterlite’s copper-smelting unit in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. (PTI File photo)

Sterlite’s copper-smelting unit in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. (PTI File photo)

Based in Mumbai, India, Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, a unit of London-listed resources conglomerate Vedanta Resources is a diversified and integrated metals and mining group operating in Tuticorin, India. It has the country’s largest copper smelter which produces 30,000 tonnes of refined copper a month – or more than half of India’s total production. The company produces copper cathodes and cast copper rods for use in the transformer and the wires and cables industries. It markets its copper products directly to original equipment manufacturers and traders.

The company has diverse operations. It mines bauxite, and produces aluminum conductors and various other aluminum products; mines zinc ore, and produces zinc ingots and lead ingots. In addition to these products the Sterlite Industries produces various chemical products, such as sulphuric acids, phosphoric acids, phospho gypsum, hydrofluosilicic acids, and granulated slag.

Further, the company is involved in paper business as well as in trading gold. It markets its copper products directly to original equipment manufacturers and traders.

The Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter was commissioned in 1996. From the beginning, the plant has been mired in controversy. Originally it was planned to erect the plant in Maharashtra and Goa, but it faced severe opposition from the people there. However, the AIADMK regime under Jayalalithaa welcomed the project by allotting land at Tuticorin. Since then, Mr. V.Gopalswamy (Vaiko), the general secretary of MDMK party has protested against the project.

On March 23, 2013, massive gas leak, suspected to be Sulphur dioxide or trioxide, caused suffocation and panic around the Sterlite Copper plant between 5 am and 8 am. One Sterlite contract worker, Shailesh Mahadev, 35, reportedly succumbed to exposure to the gas. Following the alleged leakage of noxious gas, residents of Tuticorin town, New Colony, market area, Perumalpuram and SIPCOT area said they experienced sneezing and a few complained of asphyxiation.

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Following the incident, environmental activists blamed the Sterlite Industries. They staged a demonstration near Rajaji Park on Palayamkottai Road and sought the closure of the copper smelter. Officials from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Revenue Divisional Officer K. Latha, and Tuticorin Tahsildar Alwar reached the Sterlite company and inspected the copper smelter unit.

TNPCB officials said a sensor in the smelter’s smokestack showed sulphur dioxide levels were more than double the permitted concentration at the time emissions were reported and had “breached limits prescribed by the Board”. TNPCB ordered the shutdown of the smelter with immediate effect until further notice.

However, Sterlite Industries denied the smelter was the source a gas leak. The smelter’s general manager of projects said there were no emissions at the time because the plant shut down for maintenance from March 21st to March 23rd was starting up after two days of maintenance, not producing copper, and high readings in the smokestack were likely a result of workers recalibrating the sensors.

Ashish Kumar, Collector of Tuticorin, said that preliminary inquiries suggested that there was a leak of sulphur dioxide.

The TNPCB issued the order to shut down the plant with immediate effect and the power utility on Friday night disconnected the power supply to the plant. We are in the process of stopping operations

The process of shutting down the plant began on Friday (March 29) night with the disconnection of the power supply to the plant.

MDMK’s general secretary Vaiko, thanked Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa for ordering closure in the interests of the public and to protect the environment.

National Green Tribunal (NGT), a fast-track court hearing the case on allowing the plant to reopen, set up an expert committee to measure emissions and check the working condition of machinery, among other things.

On May 31st, the NGT had, in an interim order, allowed Sterlite to commence operations under the supervision of the expert committee set up by the tribunal.

The expert committee submitted its report on July 10, 2013. “The emissions from all the stacks were well within the permissible limit prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board when the plant was in normal operation. … Upon stack sampling or ambient air quality monitoring, it is not being found that the industry was emitting sulphur dioxide gas or substances when the plant was in normal operation, which were in violation to the prescribed standards,” the report states,” said the report by P.S.T. Sai and Ligy Philip.

The apex environment court said further in its order that the expert committee had made certain recommendations to improve the working of the plant. It also noted that Sterlite Industries has agreed to comply with the recommendations within a time-bound schedule.

Justice Swatanter Kumar

Justice Swatanter Kumar

On August 8, 2013, the National Green Tribunal headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar suppressed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board closure notice served to Sterlite Industries. It upheld its interim orders of May 31 and July 15, which permitted the Vedanta Group’s Sterlite copper smelter factory in Tuticorin to resume full operations on the basis of the report submitted by the expert committee appointed by the tribunal. The National Green Tribunal gave its final clean chit to the Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant in Tuticorin. At the same time, keeping in mind the issues raised by the state pollution control board, the tribunal has issued a host of conditions which the factory must comply with. It has also set up a committee to check the health of people around Tuticorin and Sipcot industrial area in the district.

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