The Sterlite copper smelter in Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) in coastal Tamil Nadu has been considered a major polluter ever since its inception in 1997. The current crisis started with the unit announcing plans to double capacity of the smelter to 8,00,000 tonnes per year. In March, people started protesting against expansion plans, which ended in police firing on May 22, claiming 13 lives and leaving many injured. The Tamil Nadu government instantly ordered the closure of the smelter in Tuticorin. Sterlite has gone to the court and, as things stand, the Principal Bench of the NGT has emitted the plea of Vedanta Ltd, challenging the closure of its Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi, to an independent committee to be headed by a former judge, which will pronounce its verdict in six weeks.
P Ramnath, the CEO of Vedanta Ltd’s India copper operations in Tuticorin and Silvassa, who has over 30 years of experience in chemicals, speciality chemicals, paper and base metals industries, says the charges against the plant are half truths and lies, in an interview with FE’s Sushila Ravindranath. Excerpts:
Was Thoothukudi the wrong choice of location for a copper smelter, considering its fragile ecology?
Sterlite Copper imports its entire raw material, copper concentrate and rock phosphate from mining sites globally, to the place where the smelter operates. This is above 2 million metric tonnes per year, and all this is transported using large vessels. Such massive material handling requires a world-class port, bulk material handling facility, warehousing capacity and road transportation facility for inbound and outbound logistics. There is no better place than Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu that can offer all of this.
Protesters said Sterlite Copper came to Tamil Nadu as no other state was willing to give permission to this plant…
It is a false allegation. The project was initiated at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, and was stalled after civil foundation work was done. Ratnagiri has a history of being against industry, starting from Enron gas plant, JSW’s steel plant, Jaitapur nuclear power plant, Sterlite’s copper smelter and the latest being Nanar refinery.
After halting the project at Ratnagiri, Sterlite established its copper smelter, the first in private sector in India, at Thoothukudi, at the invitation of then AIADMK government headed by J Jayalalitha. Sterlite never attempted to put plant in any other place in any other state. And the project to double capacity from 4,00,000 tonnes to 8,00,000 tonnes was approved by the DMK government.
Is there a need for India to produce copper?
Sterlite Copper has an annual production capacity of 4,00,000 tonnes of refined copper. The metal finds application in various downstream industries—wire drawing, transformers, automobile, electronics, utensils and power. The company also produces sulphuric acid, which is used for manufacturing various industrial chemicals, detergents, soaps and a host of products used for chemical industries. Phosphoric acid is a value-added product and Sterlite is the largest manufacturer of this, which is the main raw material for fertiliser industry in south India. The copper slag (known as V Sand) produced during smelting is a credible alternate to river sand used for construction and is a raw material for manufacturing cement. Gypsum produced from the phosphoric acid plant is the main raw material for the cement industry.
Sterlite supports all major industries that contribute to the basic infrastructure of the country—power, electronics, automobile, chemicals, detergents, soaps, cement, construction and fertiliser.
How does your technology compare to copper smelters around the world?
We operate with a globally-proven technology called Isasmelt, which has been adopted by some of the largest copper smelters in the world. We follow the process of bath smelting with fully closed furnaces. This is one of the most efficient processes.
The second part is capturing off-gas generated during smelting. This off-gas contains 20% sulphur dioxide (SO2), which is converted to sulphuric acid. We have adopted Double Contact Double Absorption technology by Kvaerner Chemetics of Canada; it’s a standard process across all copper smelters and burners in the world.
Then there are tail gas scrubbers to treat any residual gas to ensure lowest emissions of SO2 from stacks (chimney). There are two sulphuric acid plants (not one) at Sterlite, which capture 99.92% of off-gas and convert it into sulphuric acid.
Environmentalists have been saying that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has been flouting norms for two decades by allowing you to operate a smelter with chimney stacks much shorter than is permitted…
For specific process plants, the emission norm is specified in the respective consent orders and a company is expected to follow the same. In Sterlite Copper’s case, the emission norm prescribed is 1kg/tonne of sulphuric acid that is produced, which is a benchmarked emission norm. However, the allegation assumes incorrectly that the SO2 emission norm is 4kg/tonne of sulphuric acid produced. In fact, due to a combination of superior technology, installation of tail gas scrubbing unit and the usage of high-efficiency Caesium-coated catalyst in converter beds, it has enabled us to achieve much less than the prescribed 1kg/tonne of sulphuric acid produced in the plant.
According to air modelling studies carried out by Vimta Labs in 2007, of the ground level concentrations over the site in a 10-km radius covering 16 directions, emissions never exceeded 45.1µg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre) on a worst-case scenario basis.
During the actual operations of the plant in the 4 LTPA scenario, the ground level concentrations were not reported beyond 60µg/m3 in any of the ambient air quality monitoring stations installed by Sterlite Copper as well as by TNPCB in nearby villages. The Continuous Ambient Air Quality (CAAQ) values are monitored by Air Care Centre, TNPCB, and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) through eight CAAQ monitoring stations installed in and around the plant. It’s unjustifiable to evaluate ground level concentration based only on stack height, without taking into account norms prescribed for the industry, the velocity of flue gases and other technical factors involved.
There has been a controversy regarding land acquired for your expansion…
The Copper Smelter Plant-1 operations are located on 102.36 hectares. While applying for environmental clearance in 2007, it was mentioned in our application that we are in possession of 102.36 hectares. And it was categorically stated that the remaining 69.86 hectares was in process of being acquired, the payment for which was made to the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT). The unit had clarified the total land area to the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) in 2007 to their email query. Post this, environmental clearance was issued with a plant area of 172.17 hectares in 2007. SIPCOT allotted the land in tranches between 2006 and 2009. The Supreme Court and TNPCB directed us to develop 43 hectares of greenbelt, of which 26 hectares was mandated to have a 25-metre width. The company has complied with this directive and TNPCB and CPCB submitted a joint inspection report in September 2012. Based on this and various arguments later on, matters related to total land area, greenbelt area and greenbelt width were resolved in the final judgment in April 2013.
What about ground water pollution caused by Sterlite?
Since 1996, groundwater samples are collected every month from eight locations around SIPCOT Industrial Complex by TNPCB Thoothukudi. They’re analysed by TNPCB and the report is submitted to Sterlite Copper. It is evident from the report there is no presence of marker pollutants such as arsenic and zinc related to our operations. Sterlite Copper is a zero liquid discharge plant since inception.
We’ve a treatment facility to process and recycle 100% effluents and consume treated water into the process of smelting. This unique feature has helped the company reduce its dependency on fresh water sources. Of the total water consumed by us, 70% supply comes from a desalination plant in Thoothukudi, and 30% from the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board.
Has any global body looked into your operations?
We have been recognised with ‘Sword of Honour’ by British Safety Council in 2017-18 for consistent and top performance in safety as compared to any global metals and mining company. The company has placed its approach to safety on two main pillars: single-point accountability & behaviour-based safety.