In a setback to the Tamil Nadu government, the Supreme Court on Monday directed the National Green Tribunal to decide on the question of maintainability and merit of Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper’s plea challenging closure of its plant at Tuticorin. A bench led by Justice RF Nariman said the NGT should decide the issue after a three-member committee, constituted by the green panel to look into environmental compliance and other issues of Sterlite plant, submitted its recommendations.
As of now, the panel can progress unhindered. The NGT on August 20 had appointed an expert committee led by retired chief justice of Meghalaya High Court Tarun Agarwal to inspect Sterlite’s premises in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), and submit a report regarding its operations and the resultant pollution to the tribunal within six week. This was opposed by the TN government. Senior advocate CA Sundaram, appearing for Vedanta, said he had no problem if the NGT decides both the issues as all relevant materials are with them.
The apex court had on August 17 refused to entertain the Tamil Nadu government’s plea against the NGT order allowing Vedanta to access the administrative unit inside its closed Sterlite copper plant at Tuticorin and asked the NGT to “finally decide” the matter. It had said that the NGT would hear the matter on merits and also on the issue of maintainability raised by the state government.
The state government had on May 28 ordered the state pollution control board to seal and “permanently” close the mining group’s copper plant following violent protests over pollution concerns. After Sterlite announced its plans to expand the Tuticorin plant, villagers around it started fresh protests that continued for over 100 days, culminating in the May 22 police firing on protestors that claimed 13 lives and left scores injured. Following these protests and police firing, the plant was closed on March 27.
The Sterlite plant had made headlines in March 2013 when a gas leak had led to the death of one person and injured 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.