Chennai: Tamil Nadu’s environment authority has permitted Chemplast Sanmar Ltd, the Sanmar group’s flagship company, to restart work on a coal-fired power plant in Mettur, reversing an earlier decision to withdraw its approval.
But the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) also says in a 22 June order that it will prosecute the firm and its officials and directors for undervaluing the cost of the project—a violation under India’s environment norms.
It does not specify the scope of prosecution.
The maker of piping systems and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most widely used plastics, got the state authority’s approval in 2006 for a Rs48 crore, 48.5MW sulphur-based fuel conversion plant to supply power to its manufacturing units in Mettur, but started building a coal-fired thermal power plant after sulphur prices began rising.
‘Etymological’ benefits: The Chemplast Sanmar plant in Mettur, Tamil Nadu. In January 2008, the state pollution control board revoked its approval for the power plant after finding irregularities at the premises.
An audit report later showed the project cost at Rs177.13 crore. For projects costing Rs100 crore or more, companies have to hold a public hearing and complete an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to determine the environmental and social impact of the project.
Following this, in January 2008, TNPCB revoked its approval for the power plant after finding irregularities at the company’s Mettur premises. An appellate authority hearing the firm’s appeal, too, said it had violated norms and needed to get clearances under EIA.
But the Madras high court later set aside both orders and directed TNPCB to grant a fresh hearing to Chemplast.
Now, in a turnaround of its earlier stance, TNPCB says in its latest order that the firm can resume work on the thermal power plant as it is not a new plant but a conversion of a sulphur-based plant.
Mint has reviewed a copy of the order.
The board adds that a firm “requires clearance from the state government only for captive plants up to 250MW coming up separately and not along with the main industry. In the present case, the coal-based power plant is established along with the main industry”.
TNPCB member secretary R. Ramachandran refused to talk on the issue after agreeing to meet Mint on Wednesday. Board chairman R. Balakrishnan could not be reached.
TNPCB inspected Chemplast Sanmar’s Mettur premises following complaints from the local community. At the time, the board said the firm had not obtained clearances from the ministry of environment and forests or from TNPCB for a thermal power plant, eventually halting work and revoking its approval.
A spokesman for Chemplast Sanmar denied the firm had undervalued the project cost. “It is only a matter of different interpretation,” the spokesman said in an email, asking not to be named. The “cost involved in the change over/conversion from LSHS-based (low sulphur heavy stock-based) facility to coal-based facility isof immaterial consequence and what is significant is the reduction in the resultant pollution load”.
Leo Saldanha, coordinator, Environment Support Group, a not-for-profit body, says, “The order has cleverly and selectively cited Supreme Court decisions relating to the etymology of the words ‘project’ and ‘plant’, thus giving the benefit to Chemplast.”
But TNPCB “could not have missed the following very clear clause 4 in EIA notification 1994, wherein it is stated: Concealing factual data or submission of false, misleading data/reports, decisions or recommendations would lead to the project being rejected”, he wrote in an email.
TNPCB does say in its order that it will prosecute Chemplast Sanmar for providing false information on the cost, without giving more details.
“The objection of G. Madheshwaran regarding the false information furnished over the cost of project is noted and accepted. TNPC Board will take separate steps for prosecution of Chemplast and the concerned directors/officers in accordance with the relevant statutory provisions,” the board says in its latest order.
Madheshwaran, a farmer from Gonur village in Mettur, heads an association of farmers called Gonur West Agriculturists Development Union and has been leading a campaign against the thermal power plant.
“There are so many health problems that people (in Mettur) face due to the presence of Chemplast Sanmar’s factories. The coming up of a coal plant in plant III of the company will create more problems as there is a residential area nearby,” Madheshwaran said over the phone from Mettur.