Guest Post by NITYANAND JAYARAMAN
A toxic hotspot in the backyard of a house in Therkuveerapandiapuram, a village adjoining the Sterlite factory. Dangerous levels of iron and arsenic were found in the soil here. (Picture by Nityanand Jayaraman)
On 23 March, 2013, a toxic gas leak from Vedanta-subsidary Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi spread panic and discomfort for several kilometres around the plant. The leak once again highlighted the increased potential for major catastrophes due to an atmosphere of collusion between regulators and polluters. The company, which was shut down for maintenance, resumed operations in the early hours of 23 March. Within hours, people in the nearby areas complained of suffocation and eye and nose irritation. A 35-year old Bihari contract labourer, who was working at Sterlite’s thermal power plant nearly a kilometre away, reportedly succumbed to the effects of the toxic gas. Irate residents rallied to the District Collector’s office demanding permanent closure of the offending factory.
The District Collector suggested that sulphur dioxide may have been the culprit. But anyone who knows the history of this plant would lay the blame not on this gas or that, but squarely on pliant regulators, and perhaps the judiciary.
The 1200 tonne per day (tpd) copper smelter was constructed in two phases – both with dubious legality – with active support of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and the chairperson of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC). In September 2004, when SCMC visited Thoothukudi, it found that Sterlite had constructed a 900 tonne per day copper smelter complex without obtaining an Envirnomental Clearance from the MoEF. Neither did the plant have the mandatory Consents to Establish under Air and Water Acts.
Citing poor pollution management, the SCMC recommended that clearance should not be given. It ordered the TNPCB to verify the illegal constructions and take action. Contrary to recommendations, clearance was given a day after of the Committee’s visit to Sterlite. TNPCB inspected and confirmed the illegal constructions, but did nothing more.
On 7 April, 2005, a director at the MoEF wrote to the chairperson of TNPCB urging her to grant a Consent to Operate to Sterlite. “The directions issued by SCMC in this regard has (sic) been discussed with Chairman, SCMC, who has desired that TNPCB may now decide regarding granting consent for expansion to M/s Sterlite Industries India Ltd (SIIL) Tuticorin, Tamilnadu,” she wrote. The Air and Water Acts do not have any provision for legalising units constructed without a valid Consent to Establish. TNPCB obliged and issued a consent on 19 April 2005.
Sterlite went on to expand its capacity to 1200 tpd. To get its licenses, Sterlite exaggerated the extent of land in its possession. In 2007, Sterlite submitted an Environment Impact Assessment report that suggested that it had greened 26 hectares of its 102.5 hectare plant site. It claimed that it had sufficient lands – about 176 ha — in its possession to accommodate the expanded capacity and the resultant pollution (solid waste, air emission and effluents). It promised to plant 43 hectares with pollution-abating trees. Subsequent inspection reports by the TNPCB even state that the company had greened 25 percent of its 176 hectare land holding.
On 28 September 2010, the Madras High Court ordered closure of the copper plant. One key grounds for closure was the industry’s failure to comply with the condition requiring the development of a 25 metre greenbelt around the factory. TNPCB was chided for arbitrarily reducing the greenbelt requirement from 250 metres to 25 metres in response to Sterlite’s lament about high land costs associated with the wider belt.
The Madras High Court had rightly held that the failure to comply with greenbelt requirements was a crippling lapse. Indeed, had a thick belt existed, the effects of the recent gas leak would not have reached the city.
When Sterlite was shut down by the High Court, the factory was running without valid licenses under Air and Water Acts. Two days later, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order and unwittingly authorised the unlicensed operation of a disputed facility.
In May 2011, Sterlite’s non-compliance of greenbelt requirements and its land fraud came to light in a report submitted by NEERI to the Supreme Court. Against a requirement of 176 hectares for the 1200 tonne plant, Sterlite had only 102.5 hectares, the report found. Also, less than 13 hectares – as against 43 hectares – had been greened.
Since October 2010, Sterlite has functioned on leave granted by the Supreme Court. During the apex court’s watch, at least 8 hazardous incidents were recorded where 3 workers were killed, four more injured. Several hundred people in the vicinity of the plant have been gassed.
Under the circumstances, faith in the rule of law is not an easy belief system to sustain.
Thoothukudi Gears up For Major Showdown with Sterlite
34-year old M. Kishorekumar, who is the president of Taxi Drivers Association clarifies that they are not opposed to industries. “We want good industries to come to Thoothukudi, to Tamil Nadu. But Sterlite is not good for us. It is a dangerous factory. We have to think about our futures too,” he says. “My 11-year old son suffered because of the gas leak. It is now three days since the leak, and he is still complaining of head ache, eye and throat irritation, a bitter taste in his mouth and has no appetite. I have had to take him to hospital for three days. He has to go to school with all this because it is examination time,” Kishorekumar says.
List of Hazardous Incidents at Sterlite Industries between October 2010 and March 2013 during the time the plant has run on leave granted by Hon’ble Supreme Court.
Compiled by Nityanand Jayaraman, based on reports by Sterlite workers
Total: 3 dead; several injured in 8 incidents
Amalan, 30, sustained serious injuries after an electrical fire broke out at Motor Control Room of Phosphoric Acid Plant.
Swaminathan, 50, killed after falling into Phosphoric Acid tank. Due to the poor light conditions, the worker tripped on the scaffolding and fell 15 metres into an open and empty tank.
Massive gas leak, suspected to be Sulphur dioxide or trioxide, causes suffocation and panic around the Sterlite Copper plant. One Sterlite contract worker, Shailesh Mahadev, 35, reportedly succumbed to exposure to the gas.
1 dead; several injured
One North Indian worker, sourced by labour contractor Lohit, and employed by Mahesh Engineering was injured while working in the Phosphoric Acid Plant. Workers, who said very little information was available about his condition and what actually happened. He is reported to have had 5 stitches.
A white gas (suspected to be Sulphur Dioxide) escaped for about 45 minutes at ground level throwing a scare among Sterlite workers, after a power outage caused a shutdown of the Copper smelter and sulphuric acid plant at around 10 a.m. today (17 August, 2011). The wind was blowing from East to West and carried the smoke away from the highway and the Milavittan village.
Thangapandi, a 32-year old contract worker, engaged by OEG Ltd to work in Sterlite’s copper smelter factory sustained first degree burns due to an electrical accident. Thangapandi is a resident of Pandarampatti.
Amalanathan, a 28-year old crane maintenance mechanic, was electrocuted and killed in Vedanta-subsidiary Sterlite Copper’s premises today. According to workers, Amalanathan died on the spot at around 11.30 a.m. As of 3.30 p.m., the police had not yet registered a First Information Report. According to a Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) party worker, it was only after the communist unions and MDMK intervened by staging a road blockade did the Police even enter the scene. Amalanathan, who was married barely 3 months ago, is a resident of a locality called 3rd Mile, near Sterlite.
Ratheesh, a young contract employee from Sterlite, sustained 30 to 35 percent burn injuries on chest and hand. He was admitted to Apollo Hospital, Madurai, and underwent treatment until 24.3.2011. Inpatient Number: 205688. Referred by Dr. Vanitha Stephen, Tuticorin.
Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and environmental activist.
- BREAKING NEWS- Anti-Sterlite Protestors Arrested en Mass in Thoothukudi (kractivist.wordpress.com)