In a setback for Vedanta, the Supreme Court on Monday refused permission to reopen Sterlite’s copper smelter in Tamil Nadu.
A bench led by justice RF Nariman set aside the National Green Tribunal’s December order that had paved the way for the reopening of the plant, holding that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to entertain the appeal by Vedanta against the shutdown.
However, the bench asked the company to move the Madras High Court for any interim relief.
Noting that the plant has been shut for a long period since April 9 and “exporting a product which is an important import substitute”, it allowed the company to approach the high court chief justice for expeditious hearing in the case.
“Since we have set aside the impugned judgments of the NGT on the ground of maintainability, the order of January 22 passed by the TNPCB, being a consequential order, is also set aside,” the apex court stated.
The judgment has come on a batch of cross-appeals filed by the state government, Vedanta and others. While the Tamil Nadu government had challenged NGT’s December 15 order allowing reopening of the plant on the grounds that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the issues related to policy decisions, Vedanta had sought stay on the Madras High Court’s December 21 order that restrained it from reopening the plant after protests by activists and local groups.
The NGT while describing the government’s order to shut down the plant as “non-sustainable and unjustifiable” had asked Sterlite to take a series of steps for “safeguarding environment”. The factory was directed to spend Rs 2.5 crore for its faulty handling of 3.5 lakh tonnes of copper slag near the factory. The green panel had said the company should spend within three years Rs 100 crore on welfare of inhabitants of the area as it had offered to do. It had also suggested that the company take steps for safeguarding environment, like creating a dedicated website where the stakeholders can lodge their environment related grievances.
According to the state, the NGT does not have jurisdiction to decide upon the validity of a government order and it’s only the Constitutional courts that have the power and the jurisdiction to do so.
The state government claimed the tribunal failed to consider the data, document and evidence furnished by state pollution control board to prove that the company had irreversibly polluted the ground water in and around Tuticorin district.
Vedanta said that the decision to shut down its plant was a political decision even as 11 other industries are operating within the same area where its factory is situated, but no action is being taken against them.
Immediately before the plant was closed down, the area had witnessed protests over alleged pollution caused by the plant. As many as 13 people were killed and several injured on May 22 last year when police opened fire on a crowd protesting against the plant they blamed for environmental pollution. Several people were also arrested for rioting, burning vehicles in the premises of the collectorate, pelting stones and damaging public property. This had prompted the Tamil Nadu government on May 28 to order the state pollution control board to seal and “permanently” close the mining group’s copper plant.
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The Sterlite plant had made headlines in March 2013 when a gas leak had led to the death of one person and injuries to several others, after which then chief minister J Jayalalithaa had ordered its closure.
The company had then appealed to the NGT which had overturned the government order. The state had then moved the top court, which in April 2013 had allowed the Sterlite Copper Smelter plant to function in Tuticorin in public interest, but asked the company to pay Rs 100 crore as compensation for polluting land and water by running it without approvals.