Courts battle over polluting Sterlite plant. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer

BY NITHYANAND JAYARAMAN From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 41, Dated October 16, 2010

On 29 September, the Madras High Court ordered the closure of Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter in Thoothukudi for violating environmental laws. The final judgement was delivered 14 years after the NGO National Trust for a Clean Environment claimed that Sterlite, a prominent subsidiary of the $8 billion UK-based Vedanta Resources, was operating illegally.In any Indian courtroom, it is easy to see that justice and patience are great companions. Ask the residents of Thoothukudi, a nondescript port town in Tamil Nadu, 570 km south of Chennai, and they will tell you that that companionship is 14 years old. And counting.

The two-member bench of the High Court agreed and ruled that the original environmental clearance of 1995 was illegal because it was issued without an Environmental Impact Assessment and public hearing, that licence conditions were violated by Sterlite, and that the violations were ignored by the Environment Ministry and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

Two days later, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order. The wait had begun again. Perhaps, justice would follow patience. Not all of Thoothukudi’s residents are hopeful, though. Regardless of the Supreme Court verdict, they say that they stand to lose a lot.

“Now, half the damage is already done,” says T Muthuraj of Meelavittan, the village closest to the factory. “Our groundwater is polluted. By the time the verdict comes out, Thoothukudi will be clamouring for water. What can we do then? We can beat our chests, weep and leave town. We are plagued by poor health. Our children fare no better. Which court will compensate our losses.”

Regulatory failure and the inclination of courts to give the benefit of the doubt to polluters in such cases has left communities, the environment and future generations holding the bill.

Ask the people who the guilty are, and there is a ready answer — the TNPCB is at the root of the problem. “The TNPCB is totally beholden to big industries. It ignores violations and does everything possible to protect the interests of industries,” says M Pushparayan, a local resident.

A quick walk around the factory and his point bears out easily — the pollution is there for everyone to see. Grey-white mountains of gypsum, a powdery fluoride-rich waste, and black hills of heavy-metal laden slag are visible from a distance as you approach the factory.

Groundwater from hand pumps in Meelavittan and Therkuveerapandiapuram, two villages adjoining the factory, is yellow in colour. On 30 September, a day after the High Court order, seven goats belonging to a family in a nearby colony died. Villagers claim that the animals died after drinking water from a canal bordering the gypsum dump.

Besides pollution, the factory has a poor track record on safety. Local newspapers reported that between 1996 (a year after the factory was set up) and 2004, 13 people have been killed and 139 people injured. The most gruesome accident took place in 1997 when an explosion inside the factory reduced two workers to charred bones.

On 26 September this year, a worker was killed and another injured while cleaning an acid tanker lorry. “It happened near the acid plant. The surviving worker is still undergoing treatment at the AVM Hospital,” said a worker who refused to be named.

On its part, Sterlite Industries has never contested the figures or the accidents that have been reported.

But, perhaps the strongest endorsement of the local residents’ claims came from the High Court itself. In its order, the court found the factory to be in a “pathetic condition”.

“The plant site is severely polluted and the ground samples present levels of arsenic which indicate that the site may be classified as containing hazardous waste according to Indian standards,” the High Court judges said. “Groundwater samples taken under and in the vicinity of the deposit sites show high levels of copper, chrome, lead, cadmium and arsenic. The chloride and fluoride content is also high when compared to Indian drinking water standards.”

The effects of pollution are already being felt in the villages around the factory. “Respiratory disorders are the commonest complaint in our village,” says villager Muthuraj. “Children complain of joint pains and most of us have dental problems. The gums start itching, and very soon the teeth start falling off.”

However, the real tragedy in Thoothukudi becomes clearer when its surroundings are considered. Roughly 7 km as the crow flies from Muthuraj’s house are two beautiful coral islands — Vanthivu and Kasuwar.

THOOTHUKUDI IS fringed by coral reefs and was once a famed spot for pearl oyster beds. Islands such as Kasuwar lie within the notified Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, one of only five such United Nations-notified marine protected areas in the country.

A Forest Department diktat recommends a setback of 25 km from the protected islands for polluting industries. Sulphur-bearing acidic air pollutants from the smelter can damage the corals.

Had the rule of law prevailed, the factory would never have been set up in 1995. The Environment Ministry’s clearance and the TNPCB’s Consent to Establish mandate the 25 km setback condition. But Sterlite constructed the factory within 15 km of four protected islands. Though the law mandated a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment and public hearing before clearing the project, Sterlite was illegally exempted from these provisions.

“The TNPCB could have closed the factory based on just the setback condition violation,” says Fatima Babu, a fishing community leader prominent in the fight against Sterlite Industries. “We spoke about this violation at every meeting in the early days of our struggle. The issue need not have dragged on in court at all.”

However, the list of Sterlite’s violations do not end there. In October 1998, the High Court asked Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to assess Sterlite’s environmental performance.

The NEERI report was damning. It found evidence of illegal licences, production beyond permitted capacity, hazardous waste violations, discharge ofuntreated wastewater, groundwater pollution, siting violations and greenbelt inadequacies. In an interim judgement in November 1998, the High Court issued a closure order; only to modify it a month later to grant the factory permission to operate for two months and to allow the NEERI to re-examine the situation.

EXPECTEDLY, WHEN the NEERI submitted its second report in February 1999, it concluded that “(Sterlite) have overhauled and serviced their (effluent treatment plant) system enabling them to bring down the levels of arsenic, selenium and lead in the treated wastewater to conform to the standards laid down by the TNPCB”. This was despite NEERI’S own data revealing that treated wastewater samples contained arsenic, selenium, chromium and lead.

In a telling turn of events, data obtained under the Right to Information Act reveals that since its November 1998 report, NEERI received nine consultancies totaling Rs. 1.22 crore from Sterlite.

Despite concrete data proving environmental pollution, the TNPCB looked the opposite way as Sterlite expanded its production capacity. With every passing expansion, the investment levels increase to a point where shutting the factory down, even if it has violated every rule in the book, becomes a daunting task. Repeated attempts by TEHELKA to contact Sterlite proved futile.

The recent stay by the Supreme Court on the factory closure is a clear case in point. Thoothukudi residents may hope that justice will follow patience, but bear the consequences they must.

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