The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on Wednesday issued an interim stay on the expansion of the Vedanta Group’s Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi, Times Now reported.

Residents alleged that the factory is contaminating the region’s air and water resources. Villagers have said that pollutants from the Sterlite plant have caused breathing disorders, skin diseases, heart conditions and cancer.

The order came a day after 11 people were killed and many more were injured in the coastal town during a protest. Thousands of local residents participated in Tuesday’s protests, which turned violent after the police barricaded the route to the collector’s office. Video footage broadcast by regional television channels show police shooters firing into the distance from atop police vans.

Justices M Sundar and Anita Sumant directed the Centre to hold a public hearing within four months before granting environmental clearance to Sterlite, according to The Hindu.

The interim stay was issued on a public interest litigation filed by environmentalist Fathima Babu. She had sought to stay the environmental clearance given to Vedanta’s copper smelter unit by the Centre in 2009, and renewed in 2015 and 2016. She also sought to fine the company for damaging the environment.

The decision on the new construction should be made by September, The News Minute quoted the judges as saying. The court told Vedanta to send a new petition seeking environmental clearance to the Centre. It observed that the company would need fresh clearance for phase 2 of its expansion and could not use the clearance that was granted for phase 1.

Environmentalists have alleged that the company had misled the Union environment ministry and the Madras High Court about the location of the proposed project and that officials of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu had backed the misrepresentation.

In April, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Sterlite Copper Smelter Plant’s application to renew its licence to operate beyond March 31.

Protests against hazardous waste

Since February, large-scale protests have taken place in Thoothukudi, where Sterlite Copper’s copper smelter runs with the capacity to produce 4.38 lakh 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 lakh tonnes per annum.

If the company’s expansion plan goes ahead, the project would become the world’s largest smelter located in a densely populated urban area. Thoothukudi 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 most hazardous industrial waste.