The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Thursday permitted mining giant Vedanta to access the administrative unit at its Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu even as it refused to grant it permission to operate the facility. A bench headed by Chairperson A. K. Goel added that its order should be executed under the supervision of the district magistrate. The next hearing is scheduled for August 20 and the Tamil Nadu government and the State Pollution Control board have been asked to submit data on pollution levels by then. The Central Pollution Control Board has been asked to investigate if hazardous materials have been disposed or leaked from the plant.
Vedanta had filed the appeal against the closure of the plant by the Tamil Nadu government following massive protests against the plant in May, which culminated in police firing, leading to the death of 13 people. In July, the tribunal had sent notices to the State government and the pollution control board in response to the appeal.
On Thursday, the counsel for the Tamil Nadu government yet again raised the question of whether Vedanta’s plea was maintainable. However, the bench said that it would proceed with the hearings, following which the State government did not present any arguments. The counsel for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board argued that Sterlite had polluted the uppar river and had not provided enough samples as it had been directed. The counsel for Sterlite opposed this contention and said there was no proof of the presence of the copper in the river. Following this, the NGT ordered the Central Pollution Control Board to look into the same and gave Sterlite permission to access the staff administrative block, said a source familiar with the hearing.
At the hearing, the permission given to Sterlite to access the administrative block was opposed, citing the risk of tampering of data. However, the tribunal did not accept the objections, the source said.
Criticisms have been raised over the State government’s handling of the issue.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a letter to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, criticised the poor response of the government at the NGT. The CPI(M) demanded that the State government file its submission without delay. It noted that a representative of Vedanta had issued a statement that the plant would be opened soon and that the company was releasing advertisements declaring that the plant was not responsible for any pollution. These claims had not been countered by the government. The government’s delay in filing a submission to the NGT would help in reopening the plant, the letter said.
The letter also demanded that the government make clear certain points related to the issue, including the amount of land allotted to Vedanta and the completion of nearly 80% of work on a second plant although the necessary permissions had not been given. The letter also noted that on May 18 and 19, inspections had been conducted at the plant by authorities which led to the disconnection of power supply but this fact had not been raised by the government in the NGT hearings. The CPI(M) also demanded that all agreements with Sterlite be published and details be provided regarding the water supply to the plant.
Rajya Sabha MP and DMK leader Kanimozhi on Friday, in a series of tweets, also criticised the government’s handling of the issue.
In April, Sterlite submitted a plea to Tamil Nadu pollution control board to renew the consent to operate certificate. However, pollution control board rejected the plea.
In 2013, one person died and several others were injured when gas leaked from the Sterlite factory. The then chief minister Jayalalithaa had ordered the closure of the plant. The company appealed to the NGT that overturned the government order. The State then appealed to the Supreme Court against the factory. This case is still pending. However, the Supreme Court ordered the company to pay a fine of Rs.100 crore as compensation for polluting the environment.
In a related development, May 17 Movement coordinator Thirumurugan Gandhi was arrested in Bengaluru on Thursday on charges of sedition while returning from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting, where he had spoken about the police firing in Thoothukudi. In the aftermath of the developments in May, the police registered 22 cases on charges including sedition for violating curfew, conducting candlelight vigils etc.