Vedanta's copper unit in TN asked to close

The copper smelter plant of Sterlite Industries Ltd, part of the Vedanta mining group, in the port-town of Tuticorin is being shut down after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued a closure notice to the plant after the recent leakage of sulphur dioxide gas.

The Tuticorin district administration has started overseeing the “closure operations” with electricity supply to the plant first cut off since Friday midnight. Nearly 70 per cent of the closure operations were over by Saturday evening and since it is a huge plant with several units, shutting down the entire plant will be completed by Sunday forenoon, a top official told Deccan Herald over phone on Saturday.

On March 23, when the copper smelter plant had restarted operations after a maintenance shutdown, there was allegedly a huge release of the deadly gas affecting the local population. The company though had initially denied the charges, saying “they were normal emissions within the prescribed limits”.

Tension, however, mounted in the last few days in Tuticorin with various political parties including the MDMK led by Vaiko and CPI leader R Nallakannu, heading people’s protests to immediately shut down the plant as “several major areas of the port-town was affected” by last week’s gas leakage. Sterlite has already been under fire by green groups for violating pollution control norms.

A day’s bandh was also observed in Tuticorin on Thursday demanding its closure.
The “TNPCB did its own verification after this incident and found that the release of sulphur dioxide from the plant was in high quantity,” the official said, adding, “it is a kind of a permanent closure”.

The 4,000 tonnes per annum capacity copper smelter plant in Tuticorin, said to be “one of the world’s lowest cost copper smelters” under the Vedanta-fold, also produces copper rods in that plant. The plant directly employs 1,221 workers and staff, according to the company’s website.

But over 3,000 people, including those indirectly employed, are dependent on the Tuticorin plant, which from day one of its commissioning way back in 1997 ran into a controversy for its allegedly polluting technology. 

An appeal by the Sterlite management against a Madras High Court order in 2012 directing closure of the plant on environment grounds, is pending in the Supreme Court. “But this closure notice being enforced now is not connected with that pending case,” the Tuticorin district official clarified, adding, “we have to take action when there are violations of emission norms”.

Five to six “major areas” of Tuticorin were affected by the excessive sulphur dioxide release last week, though “we cannot immediately say how many people were directly affected by that early morning release,” the official said.

However, the death of a contract workman in the copper smelter’s power plant last week was not due to the gas emission as disclosed in the post-mortem report, he added.

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