Environmental laws

Vedanta got clearance for Tamil Nadu copper smelter by misrepresenting its location, activists say

The expansion project in Tuticorin is facing stiff resistance from local residents.

New evidence has emerged that raises questions about the environmental clearance granted to Vedanta Limited’s copper smelter project in Tamil Nadu in 2009. Environmentalists allege the company had misled the Union environment ministry and the Madras High Court about the location of the proposed project, and officials of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu had backed the misrepresentation. The new evidence renders the project’s environmental clearance illegal, the environmentalists claim.

Neither the company nor the state corporation responded to questions emailed by Scroll.in. Questions sent to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change also went unanswered.

Since February, large-scale protests have been taking place in Tuticorin, the town in southern Tamil Nadu where Sterlite Copper, a unit of Vedanta Limited, runs a copper smelter with the capacity to produce 4,38,000 tonnes of copper anodes per annum, or 1,200 tonnes per day. Vedanta Limited is part of Vedanta Resources, one of the world’s largest mining and metals conglomerates. The smelter has been operational since 1996. The company wants to double the capacity by setting up another unit producing 4,38,000 tonnes per annum.

If the expansion does take place, the project would become the world’s largest smelter located in a densely populated urban area. Tuticorin has a population of 4.11 lakh, according to the 2011 census. Copper smelters are classified as “red” by the environment ministry, indicating that they release the highest level of hazardous industrial waste.

The townspeople are resisting the project. “The fumes from the existing copper plant are already ruining our health,” said Rajkumar, a Tuticorin resident. “The expansion of this industry will kill us.”

But it is not just the protests that have cast a shadow over the project. An environmental non-profit, the Chennai Solidarity Group, has released documents that call into question the basis on which the company was granted an environmental clearance for the expansion.

‘No public hearing required’

On January 1, 2009, the company secured the necessary environmental clearance for the project from the environment ministry without holding a public hearing as mandated by the law. “Public hearing is not required due to the location in the notified SIPCOT industrial area,” the ministry said.

SIPCOT refers to the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu, which set up an industrial complex over 1063.59 acres in Tuticorin in 1994. Sterlite claims SIPCOT transferred 324.53 acres of land to the company for its expansion project between February 2009 and June 2010.

In 2009, M Pushparayan, project director of a Tuticorin-based NGO, filed a writ petition in Madras High Court, challenging the environmental clearance given to the Sterlite project on the grounds that no public hearing had been held.

Public consultation is a mandatory part of the Environmental Impact Assessment of 29 categories of projects under the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986. The construction of such a project can commence only after the assessment is completed and clearances given.

However, according to a clarification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in 2014, all projects located within industrial estates notified before the Environmental Impact Assessment rules were amended in 2006 could be given clearances without a public hearing. The ministry pointed this out in its submission to the High Court.

In the court, SIPCOT backed Sterlite’s claims about its expansion project lying within the boundaries of the corporation’s existing industrial park, which had been notified and approved before 2006.

In 2016, the High Court ruled in the company’s favour. “On a perusal of the notifications also we are satisfied that no public consultation is required for the present case,” it said.

What the survey numbers reveal

In late 2017, residents were informed by the local administration that SIPCOT wanted to build a new industrial complex, called the Tuticorin Industrial Park, adjacent to its existing industrial complex. It had applied for an environmental clearance for the new industrial park in 2015. The residents were told a public hearing would be held in January 2018 as part of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment.

SIPCOT’s application for the environmental clearance listed the survey numbers of the 1,616 acres of land on which it wanted to built the Tuticorin Industrial Park. When Nityanand Jayaraman of the Chennai Solidarity Group examined the application, he found these survey numbers tallied with the survey numbers listed by Vedanta Limited in its application for a fresh environmental clearance for the project in March 2018. The table below is part of this application.

Many of the survey numbers in the table above can be found in the document submitted by SIPCOT while applying for an environmental clearance for the Tuticorin Industrial Park. The common survey numbers are highlighted in orange.

Essentially, this means Sterlite Industries is building its expansion project outside the existing SIPCOT industrial complex, said Jayaraman, on a piece of land that is yet to be developed as an industrial estate. “When I looked at the map, I saw that the copper plant was completely removed from the SIPCOT industrial complex where Sterlite had claimed its factory was coming up,” he said.

This new evidence shows that the ongoing work is illegal, he added. “The environmental clearance was obtained bypassing public consultation on the grounds that the proposed factory site was located inside a notified and approved SIPCOT Industrial Complex,” Jayaraman said. “Now it is revealed that the factory is located outside the complex.”

The Tuticorin Industrial Park, where the project is located, does not have an environmental clearance, he pointed out.

With the environmental clearance for its expansion project set to expire in December 2018, Sterlite has applied for a fresh environmental clearance, which too states that the project lies within the existing SIPCOT industrial complex.

The company did not respond to Scroll.in’s questions, seeking its comments on the discrepancy. In a statement released to the press earlier, it had said: “The Tuticorin plant expansion has received all necessary regulatory clearances and our primary focus is ensuring the wellbeing of local communities around our operations.”

Official silence

Sterlite Copper lies on the edge of Tuticorin town, along the Madurai bypass road. Next to the large grey walls of the existing factory is a vast stretch of land, where trucks can be seen shuttling between the sheds erected by the company. This is where the new copper smelter would be built, said the residents of the nearby village of Kumareddyapuram.

Access to the project site is restricted. Scroll.in was only able to see the project site from a distance of around 100 metres.

When asked about the contradiction in the stated location of the project and the survey numbers, M Veerappan, the district revenue officer, said he was not authorised to respond to the question.

The district collector did not respond to Scroll.in’s phone calls and text messages.

This is the first part of a series on Vedanta Limited’s copper smelter project in Tuticorin. The next part looks at why local residents are resisting the project.

Update: A spokesperson of Sterlite Copper responded to Scroll.in’s questions on April 6. “We would like to clarify that our statement on environmental clearance granted in 2009 is for the proposed project and not for the land parcels as referred in your question,” said Jijo Mathew, Public Relations Manager. “So far as the discrepancy with respect to the inclusion of our land parcels in proposed Tuticorin Industrial park, SIPCOT is concerned, we cannot apprehend the reasons for SIPCOT applying as part of TIP proposal.” He reiterated that the project falls “within SIPCOT Industrial Complex- Phase-II scheme which was conceived in 1996 itself.”

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