The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to stay an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that had paved way for reopening of Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries Ltd’s copper smelter plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi. A bench headed by Justice R.F. Nariman was hearing an appeal by the State of Tamil Nadu against the December order of the NGT that called for reopening of the plant.
The plea, filed through advocate M. Yogesh Kanna, sought that the NGT order be set aside as it was “erroneous” and passed without application of mind towards the evidence furnished by the Tamil Nadu government to show that Vedanta had polluted the ground water.
“The tribunal failed to consider the data, document and evidence furnished by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to prove that Vedanta had irreversibly polluted the ground water in and around Thoothukudi district,” the petition said.
On 15 December, the environment tribunal ordered the reopening of Vedanta’s copper smelter plant, months after the smelter was shut by the Tamil Nadu government over alleged pollution, which led to violent protests and culminated in police opening fire on demonstrators and killing 13.
It had asked the TNPCB to pass a fresh order of renewal of consent and authorisation to handle hazardous substances, subject to appropriate conditions for protection of environment in accordance with law within three weeks.
A bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said the Tamil Nadu government’s order issued under Section 18(1)(b) of the Water Act could not be referred to as an independent order “but relied on and endorsing the views of the TNPCB, which is under challenge, and are not sufficient for ordering closure or refusal to grant even consent.”
“If there are no other materials for the government of Tamil Nadu to arrive at the conclusion of closure on the ground of irreversible pollution being caused to the environment allowing the unit to function, then it cannot be said to be a policy decision to close down the industry permanently. If any order was passed based on the order by the Pollution Control Board, without independent application of mind and arbitrarily, then that can also be incidentally considered by the tribunal for the purpose of deciding the question of legality of that order,” the NGT said in its order.
While ordering the closure of the Sterlite unit, the Tamil Nadu government had stated that it endorsed the closure direction of the TNPCB, and also directed the board to seal the unit and close the plant permanently under Section 18(1)(b) of the Water Act, 1974, “in the larger public interest.”