HC detailed violations that include copper slag management, ground water pollution
Sterlite Copper, a unit of billionaire Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta group, ran a 400,000 tonne-capacity copper plant in Thoothukudi
The Madras high court’s decision on Tuesday to keep the Vedanta Ltd-owned Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi permanently closed may prompt companies to meet pollution control norms, legal experts and industry consultants said.
Sterlite Copper, a unit of billionaire Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta group, ran a 400,000 tonne-capacity copper plant in Thoothukudi. The company’s planned expansion of the plant was opposed by locals in May 2018. In the ensuing protests, 13 people lost their lives in police firing.
“Alarms are beginning to go off now and there is much more pressure on corporates to adhere to environmental safety, not just in managing risks at present such as in waste management and water management, but also in looking at scenarios in future that can precipitate risks like climate change and start preparing for them," said Santosh Jayaram, partner and head, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, KPMG India.
A December 2018 order by the National Green Tribunal, which allowed the reopening of the plant, was set aside by the Supreme Court in February 2019.
Until the year ended March 2018, the Sterlite plant met a third of the country’s demand for refined copper. The protests began when the company announced that it would double the plant’s capacity to 800,000 tonnes at an estimated investment of ₹2,400 crore.
There is always a lag between the societal uprise against a business operating in a certain community and the regulatory framework catching up, Jayaram said. “If there is damage to the local environment, the local community takes this up first, followed by activists. Then politicians get interested, after which it becomes part of regulation. This is the history of any law on sustainability—for instance, the rules on managing hazardous waste. So it’s high time that companies take note of this pressure before regulation hits them hard. They have to understand that they have to earn the trust of the communities in which they operate" Jayaram said.
The 800-page high court order details several violations, including on disposal of copper slag, on effluents and heavy metals leaching into groundwater, solid waste management, and monitoring air quality. The court also censured the state government and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for failing to monitor waste disposal at the plant. “The regulator failed to do its job and on account of its default, the petitioner cannot be exonerated," the court said.