Supreme Court allows Sterlite to operate Tamil Nadu plant

New Delhi/Chennai, April 2 : The Supreme Court Tuesday allowed the Sterlite Industries' smelting copper plant to continue operations in Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin and asked it to deposit Rs.100 crore with the authorities to restore the environmental damages.

The apex court bench of Justice A.K. Patnaik and Justice S.J. Mukhopadhyay said the penalty was imposed in view of the pollution caused by the plant in the Tuticorin area from 1997 to 2011.

"An amount less than this will not have the desired deterrent effect," Justice Patnaik said while pronouncing the judgment.

"The Tuticorin district administration should use the interest earned on the deposit to improve the environment," said V. Prakash, a lawyer for National Trust for Clean Environment (NTCE), an NGO and one of the respondents in the case.

The court said its order directing the Sterlite Industries India Ltd. to pay damages of Rs.100 crore would not stand in the way of any other damage claims during that period by way of civil suit.

The apex court bench added that the figure of Rs.100 crore was not final and that in future if there were violations, damages could be demanded. "This amount is only for causing damages to the environment from 1997 to 2011," the court said.

The court set aside the 2010 Madras High Court order which directed the closure of the 400,000-tonne per annum plant of Sterlite Industries, which is part of Vedanta Resources group.

The Madras High Court's ruling came on a petition filed by the NTCE and MDMK leader Vaiko. However, the apex court by its interim order of Oct 1, 2010, had stayed the closure of the plant.

Challenging the high court order, Sterlite Industries contended that it was passed on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in 1994 based on the alleged deficiencies in compliance with the statutory environmental provisions at that time.

The company pointed out that although the hearing on the PIL was concluded in January 2010, the high court passed the order eight months later, directing the immediate shut down of the company.

Earlier on March 30, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had ordered closure of the smelter plant, which continues to be in force.

The TNPCB had ordered the closure after sulphur-di-oxide leaked from the plant March 23, affecting a large number of residents of Tuticorin.

According to Prakash, the Supreme Court said the TNPCB has the power to monitor the environment and pass appropriate orders.

He also said that the court agreed that Sterlite Industries hid some material facts, but taking into consideration that the company is a major copper producer the issue was not taken up.

However, the legal problems for the Vedanta group company are far from over.

Now Sterlite Industries' has to get a favourable order from the National Green Tribunal in a case filed by it against the TNPCB March 30 order to shut down the plant.

"The next hearing of our case is slated for April 9," said a company official, not wanting to be quoted.

The company had approached the tribunal to revoke the TNPCB's order.

--IANS (Posted on 02-04-2013)

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