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Setback for Vedanta Group: Madras High Court upholds closure of Sterlite Copper plant at Tuticorin

The Tamil Nadu government had issued orders to permanently seal the existing copper smelter plant at Tuticorin after 13 anti-Sterlite protesters were shot down in police firing on May 22, 2018. (File image)

In a setback for Vedanta Group, the Madras High Court on Tuesday rejected its plea to reopen the Sterlite Copper plant at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. The plant was shut down by the Tamil Nadu government in May 2018, citing alleged violation of environmental norms.

Disallowing reopening of Sterlite Copper smelting plant, a division bench of Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan dismissed all petitions filed by the Vedanta Group which had moved the court challenging the state government’s closure order of May 28, 2018 and other connected orders including that of the TNPCB, which ordered the sealing of the plant.

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The Tamil Nadu government had issued orders to permanently seal the existing copper smelter plant at Tuticorin after 13 anti-Sterlite protesters were shot down in police firing on May 22, 2018.

Initially, the plant remained shut since April 9, 2018 after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) rejected the Consent to Operate (CTO) for the plant and issued a direction for closure and disconnection of power supply at the plant.

After 13 people were shot dead by the police on May 22, during a protest against the plant, the state government shut it down on May 28, alleging violation of environment laws.

Upholding the TNPCB order to seal the plant, in its 815-page order, the bench observed that the petitioner (Vedanta) has been consistently stating that if their plant was shut the requirement of copper in India cannot be met and it will be a great blow for the economy. The courts have held that when it comes economy pitted against environment, environment will reign supreme. Therefore, economic considerations can have no role to play while deciding the sustainability of a highly polluting industry and the only consideration would be with regard to safeguarding environment for posterity and remedying the damage caused.

Vedanta moved the National Green Tribunal for a relief of reopening the plant and the tribunal gave a favourable order to Sterlite in December 2018. However, the Supreme Court struck it down over jurisdiction issues and ordered Vedanta to approach the Madras high court, after which the company filed multiple petitions in February this year.

Alleging knee-jerk reaction by the state government, Vedanta denied it was polluting the environment and claimed hazardous wastes identified by the Pollution Control Board have already been delisted.

The state government had said the deaths in police firing were not the only reason why the plant was shut down. It said the Sterlite plant was a big threat to the environment and ecology, and pollutants released by Sterlite were much higher than other companies in the area.

The factory had been facing protests from locals for several years over the alleged emissions from the factory. The protests took a turn for the worse after the company announced that it would double the plant’s capacity to 800,000 tonne at an estimated investment of Rs 2,400 crore. The company had claimed that it has been incurring losses to the tune of Rs 5 crore every day due to the closure.

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