In 1998, a local politician had filed a petition in the Madras High Court seeking closure of Sterlite’s embattled copper smelter. The MHC had given an interim order to close the plant, but it was reopened in 1999. In 2010, the High Court had ordered the permanent closure of the plant in 2010, which was challenged by Sterlite in the Supreme Court of India (SC).
In a parallel development, just days after the Pollution Control Board’s order in the last week of March 2013, the SC had ruled on the company’s appeal.
It had fined Sterlite approximately US $18 million for breaking environmental laws, but allowed the plant to continue operations, overruling the Madras High Court’s order asking Sterlite to shut down. This has been claimed by the latter as a “victory.”
Sterlite was asked by the highest court to deposit the fine with the TNSPCB to implement measures to undo the damage to the environment. Thus, the company found itself in an intriguing situation wherein it was allowed to continue with operations by the SC, but ordered shut down by the local pollution board because of an alleged new violation of environment norms.
The SC ruling said levels of chromium, copper and lead were higher than stipulated in some of the groundwater samples collected from the area where the smelter was based. The justices also added that the amount was not final and that in the future if there were violations, damages could be demanded.
India consumes around 600,000 tons of copper annually, which is about 3 percent of the world’s total.
The Pollution Control Board had issued a closure notice to the controversy-dogged Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tuticorin, after it rejected what it dubbed as an “unsatisfactory” explanation to a show cause notice issued by the local administration, following a suspected sulphur dioxide leak from the plant on March 23. The Sterlite version was that the plant was shut down when the gas leak happened, and that emissions were within permissible limits on March 23.
Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal on Tuesday adjourned to April 12 the hearing of a petition moved by Sterilite Industries challenging the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board order to close down the plant.