The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear Vedanta’s plea for opening of its shut Sterlite copper plant at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu for producing 1,050 tonne of oxygen per day (TPD) that can be supplied to hospitals free of cost to treat Covid-19 patients. The oxygen so produced would be made available to the central government to be distributed as per its directions, the company said.
Vedanta also wants to “undertake essential care and maintenance of the deteriorating condition of the copper plant which has led to structural corrosion and weakening” and “acid leakages”.
A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde rejected the objection raised by the Tamil Nadu government which said that the apex court had earlier rejected the company’s request to reopen the plant for environmental reasons. The state government through senior counsel CS Vaidyanathan said that no oxygen production can be started by Vedanta before two to four weeks and “there is trust deficit in Tamil Nadu”.
“We understand all this. We will ensure compliance of all environmental norms by the plant and its oxygen producing facility would be allowed to operate. We are on the oxygen plant,” the bench told Vaidyanathan.
“There is almost a national emergency and you (TN) don’t put spokes in the solution. We will hear it (Vedanta) tomorrow (Friday),” the CJI said.
While seeking urgent hearing, senior counsel Harish Salve, appearing for Vedanta, argued that people were dying on daily basis and the company can produce and supply oxygen to treat Covid patients. “We can start in five to six days if you give a go-ahead today. The company can manufacture tonnes of oxygen there every day and is ready to supply them free of cost… Vedanta is seeking to carry some repair work and restart oxygen plant for copper unit and that unit can manufacture thousand tonnes of oxygen,” he said.
Vedanta also clarified that it was not wanting to re-start its plant, but only to carry out maintenance of the plant. The plant run by Vedanta arm Sterlite was sealed by the TN government on May 28, 2018 for environmental concerns. Thirteen people were killed when police opened fire during a protest against environmental pollution allegedly caused by the plant. Since then company has pursued various rounds of litigations before different fora.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta also supported reopening of the Vedanta’s copper plant for production of oxygen. “The country is in dire need of oxygen and the Centre is augmenting oxygen from whichever source. Vedanta wants to make its plant operational, but let Vedanta only make it operational to manufacture oxygen for health purposes,” the SG said, adding “between protecting environment and protecting human life, we must lean in favour of protecting human life”.