New Delhi: Billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal's firm Vedanta's proposal to invest Rs 1,240 crore in Odisha to expand the production capacity of an aluminium smelter has been jolted for the second time in a row- this time, allegedly, for concealment of facts. An expert body under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has sought an explanation from the London-headquartered firm as to why information about litigation, pending against it in the National Green Tribunal for alleged violation of environmental norms, was not furnished while applying for the Environmental Clearance.
The litigation, alleging Vedanta of damaging agricultural land and water bodies through indiscriminate disposal of fly ash generated from the aluminium smelter's captive power plant, has been pending for disposal in the Eastern Zone Bench of the green tribunal, located in Kolkata, since April 2021. Vedanta has claimed that the case has already been closed and is awaiting formal disposal from the tribunal.
"The Ministry [MoEF&CC] as well as the EAC members was in receipt of a public representation alleging that the unit is disposing of the fly ash in the nearby agricultural fields and causing pollution. In this regard, a case bearing no. 10/2021 is pending before the Hon'ble NGT, Eastern Zone … PP [project proponent] did not provide the information of said court case in Form 2 application and also not disclosed during the presentation. EAC opined to seek an explanation from the PP in this regard," states the minutes of the EAC meeting held on November 12.
The minutes of the aforementioned EAC meeting were uploaded on the Parivesh website of MoEF&CC on November 23. Earlier, the EAC had rejected Vedanta's proposal – to expand production of its aluminium smelter in Jharsuguda from 1.6 million tons/annum (MTPA) to 1.8 MTPA – in August 2021, citing non-compliance of terms and conditions which had been imposed upon it while granting the original Environmental Clearance in 2008. Vedanta submitted a fresh proposal providing point-wise responses to EAC's queries, but it did not provide information about the case pending against it. The EAC was apprised about the litigation only through a public representation received on the day of the meeting on November 12.
Sections of the local population in Jharsuguda and environmental activists have also accused Vedanta of damaging the ecology by following unscientific waste disposal methods. A local NGO of Jharsuguda, listing out names of several villages where the ecology has been affected by indiscriminate disposal of fly ash, has demanded a field inspection by experts to conduct an impartial assessment.
"Vedanta has not properly followed guidelines pertaining to fly ash management. The company killed several acres of natural vegetation in areas including Kurebaga, Katikela, Sibrampur, Kumudapali, Siriapali, Kali Bahal, Parmanpur, Sodamal and Junarimunda by causing environmental pollution. No permission should be granted to expand the project until a physical verification of the environmental degradation caused by Vedanta in the region is conducted by a high-level expert committee," said Satyanarayan Rao of Anchalik Parivesh Surakhya Sangh, an NGO working on environmental issues in Jharsuguda.
On the other hand, Vedanta has maintained that it has been working on a sustainable model of industrialisation in its aluminium production unit in Jharsuguda.
"Vedanta (Jharsuguda) has taken steps to ensure that all consent conditions are met and is working towards a sustainable and greener future for all by spurring emerging applications with a strong focus on health, safety, and environment," a spokesperson of Vedanta told the NewsClick.
When asked as to why information about the litigation was not disclosed to the MoEF&CC, the spokesperson further said:
"The case has been resolved in line with the recommendations of the National Green Tribunal and has been closed; only procedural disposal from the tribunal is awaited."
Apart from seeking an explanation for the alleged concealment of facts, the EAC has recommended the MoEF&CC forward the public representation to Vedanta to procure the latter's point-wise replies to the allegations. The EAC has also sought to know how Vedanta plans to dispose of around 85,000 metric tons of spent pot lining, a hazardous waste generated in an aluminium smelter unit. The EAC has also asked Vedanta to provide details of the petitioner's environmental compensation paid if any. But the spokesperson said: "No compensation has been levied or in the record of National Green Tribunal."
In a meeting held in August 2021, the EAC had pointed out certain non-compliances on the part of Vedanta in following the terms and conditions imposed upon it as part of the Environmental Clearance in 2008. However, MoEF&CC's regional office in Bhubaneshwar provided a clean chit to Vedanta following a reassessment. The ministry's regional office issued a compliance certificate through a letter dated October 27, 2021.
In the petition filed in the green tribunal in April 2021, it had been alleged that Vedanta was indiscriminately disposing of fly ash over agricultural land belonging to a certain Ajit Kumar Dhal in Junarimunda Mouza of Jharsuguda. It was further alleged that due to the improper disposal of fly ash, the toxic slurry was being washed off into a pond belonging to the petitioner, negating his efforts at pisciculture.
On June 15 2021, a division bench of the green tribunal comprising Judicial Member Justice B Amit Sthalekar and Expert Member Saibal Dasgupta ordered a site inspection by a two-member expert panel comprising a senior scientist of Odisha State Pollution Control Board and the District Magistrate of Jharsuguda. The inspection revealed that Vedanta had violated several conditions imposed upon it by the pollution control board while granting it consent to operate. The tribunal directed the pollution control board on September 2, 2021, to assess a compensation amount on account of environmental damage caused in the region by Vedanta.
"The very manner in which the public hearing was conducted by Odisha government in September 2020 in the thick of the Covid 19 pandemic smacks of a conspiracy. It points towards a collusion between the government and the project proponent," added Rao.
The public hearing for the project was conducted amidst a series of dramatic events. On August 27, 2020, the Odisha government notified its pollution control board that it fixed September 30 as the date of public hearing for the expansion project. Locals and activists from the project-affected area sought postponement of the hearing due to the fear of spreading COVID-19. On September 21, a couple of residents of Brundamal village, which falls within the project-affected area, filed public interest litigation (PIL) in the Odisha High Court demanding postponement of the hearing in view of the prohibitory orders issued by the special relief commissioner on August 31.
On September 28, a PIL filed earlier by the NGO Anchalik Parivesh Surakhya Sangh demanding postponement of the public hearing was dismissed by a division bench of the high court, albeit without any consideration of the prohibitory orders. Nevertheless, on September 29, Justice KR Mohapatra took cognizance of the petition filed by the villagers and imposed an interim stay order on the public hearing. News reportedly spread quickly in Jharsuguda that the public hearing was postponed. However, barely a few hours later, the interim stay order was lifted. Vedanta appealed before the division bench to recall the interim order of the single-judge bench. On September 30, Justice Mohapatra issued a modified order that permitted the public hearing to be conducted as per schedule while allowing the aggrieved locals to participate in the event. As per sources, the public hearing was held at 3.30 pm on September 30, barely 10 minutes after the modified order was issued.
While locals alleged that, owing to the confusion, only 90 out of 10,000 residents of the five project-affected revenue villages could attend the public hearing, in his judgement delivered on October 9, Justice Mohapatra stated that there was no material before the court to verify the attendance in the public hearing. He left it upon Jharsuguda district magistrate Saroj Kumar Samal to decide upon the need, if any, to conduct a fresh public hearing. But, Samal passed an order on October 18 stating that "the hearing conducted on 30.09.2020 with regard to the proposed expansion of aluminium smelter at Bhurkamunda is considered smooth and complete."
After that, the EAC had, in a meeting held in August 2021, rejected the expansion project proposal on the grounds that environmental terms and conditions imposed upon Vedanta had not been followed despite the unit being in operation for more than a decade.