In a big relief for Vedanta, the Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to stay the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order allowing reopening of the company’s Sterlite copper smelter plant at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. While agreeing to hear Tamil Nadu’s appeal against the NGT judgment, the apex court in the interim stayed the order of the Madras High Court, which had asked to maintain status quo.
A two-judge Bench, headed by Justice Rohinton F Nariman, issued a notice to Vedanta and sought the company’s response on Tamil Nadu government’s appeal against the NGT’s order. The state had moved the top court, arguing that the NGT had “erroneously” set aside various orders passed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) last year with regard to the Sterlite plant.
“We are looking forward to the restart of one of the best copper smelters of the world as we remain committed towards world class environmental standards,” said the company in a statement it released on Tuesday evening.
The NGT had on December 15 set aside the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to shut down the Vedanta group’s Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi, terming it “non-sustainable and unjustifiable”. The tribunal had then also directed the state pollution control board to pass a fresh order of renewal of consent, paving the way for reopening the plant, which caters to 35-40 per cent of the country’s copper demand.
The top court had also asked TNPCB to restore electricity supply to the plant and provide Vedanta immediate access. The green tribunal’s order on December 15 came after a three-member committee constituted by it to look into the allegations of environmental pollution said no notice or opportunity of hearing was given to Vedanta before the closure of the plant. The committee, headed by former Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice Tarun Agrawal, had also said the grounds on which the pollution control board ordered the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant were not so grievous in nature that they justified its permanent closure.
A week later, on December 21, the Madurai bench of Madras High Court passed an order staying the reopening of the plant by asking all parties to maintain status quo. It had also asked the Tamil Nadu government to clarify if it proposed to file an appeal against NGT’s December 15 order.
Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper plant has been closed since March 27, initially for maintenance and later due to the state pollution control board's refusal to give it consent to operate. The state government ordered the smelter shut permanently in May after protests against alleged pollution at the plant in the city of Thoothukudi during which 13 demonstrators had been killed after police opened fire.
The state had refused to grant the consent to operate and ordered the closure, stating that the company had not followed certain environmental norms. It had alleged that Sterlite had not furnished the groundwater analysis report, not removed copper slag stored around the Uppar river, and not analysed parameters of heavy metals in the ambient air quality around the unit. The NGT had, however, rejected all these grounds.
Welcoming the apex court’s order, Sterlite Copper Chief Executive Officer P Ramnath said the NGT has asked the TNPCB to give the consent to operate (CTO) within three weeks from the date of order. This expired on December 15. The company would now approach the TNPCB to issue the CTO, Ramnath said.
During arguments at the NGT, Vedanta had submitted that it had been suffering a daily loss of Rs 5 crore due to the closure of the copper unit. Sterlite, Vedanta’s arm, has invested around Rs 3,000 crore for establishing the plant. Prices of copper in the country had risen by around 20 per cent following the closure of the plant, the company had said in its submissions before the NGT.