The Edappadi K Palaniswami government had passed the order to shut the Sterlite Copper unit in May 2018, following protests against the copper plant’s expansion plan.
In view of the Tamil Nadu government’s closure order, Vedanta Resources has been unable to get the necessary manpower and experts to maintain the plant.
The damages caused to the plant due to lack of maintenance are estimated to be nearly Rs 100 crore. And more crucially, due to this lack of maintenance, the plant is in danger of catching fire.
Over a year has passed since the UK-based Vedanta Resources’ Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi was ordered to be shut down by the Tamil Nadu government on 28 May 2018. The Edappadi K Palaniswami government had passed the order to shut the copper unit following protests demanding its closure that had led to the death of 13 persons in police firing on 22 May last year.
Protests were held since February last year demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper by a section of people against the copper plant’s expansion plan. These people also charged the unit with causing pollution in the city, which the company has vehemently denied.
Following the closure, the management approached the courts. The National Green Tribunal has held that the grounds for ordering closure of Sterlite were illegal and ordered its reopening. However, the Tamil Nadu Government appealed against this in the Supreme Court arguing that the tribunal had no powers to order the reopening of the plant.
The Supreme Court upheld the Tamil Nadu government’s contention and set aside the tribunal’s order asking the state government to reopen the plant. The apex court, however, permitted Sterlite to move the Madras High Court for relief. That petition is still pending.
Even as the petition is waiting to be heard by the Madras High Court, the Sterlite copper plant is faced with another problem — maintaining its modern plant in Thoothukudi. In view of Tamil Nadu Government’s closure order, Vedanta Resources has been unable to get the necessary manpower and experts to maintain the plant.
Sterlite only has access to the administrative block in the premises following conditional permission granted by the National Green Tribunal. This permission was given to allow administrative functions.
However, any manufacturing unit or plant needs to be maintained by qualified, trained personnel failing which the machinery can be rendered inoperable. Vedanta Resources has invested over Rs 3,000 crore in setting up the modernised plant and it needs regular maintenance.
A report filed by the Central Pollution Control Board on 18 August 2018, following a directive from the National Green Tribunal and physical inspection, found the condition of the plant deteriorating. The Board reported that several areas of the Sterlite plant required immediate attention as their condition was precarious.
In March this year, Sterlite filed an affidavit in the Madras High Court citing that the damages caused to the plant due to lack of maintenance are estimated to be nearly Rs 100 crore.
The tanks in which sulphuric acid is stored have been significantly damaged and they need immediate attention. Acid-resistance tiles lining the tanks have been damaged and are coming off. The tanks also have a significant number of other tiles that need to be maintained.
Sterlite copper says about 1,200 tonnes of sulphuric acid remains inside the plant, while 2,137 tonnes of phosphoric acid has been stored in the premises. These storages need to be taken care of.
Again in the smelter area — which is the copper plant’s hub — many machinery parts are getting corroded and damaged due to exposure to the vagaries of weather. The smelter itself needs to undergo maintenance, and pipes and ducts connected to it need to be checked.
In addition, the Sterlite Copper’s effluent treatment plant and reverse osmosis water plants — the main environmental safeguards for the people from the company — have been affected due to non-maintenance. Due to lack of maintenance, the plant is in danger of catching fire.
The oxygen plant has not been maintained at all. This can lead to a build up of hydrogen gas that is capable of catching fire or exploding. And the dry grass, leaves and trees in the premises can potentially spread the fire to other parts, including outside the premises.
Though there is a greenbelt of 43 hectares around the plant, the closure of the plant has resulted in improper maintenance of the trees, including infrequent watering for the plants. This has made the area dry and prone to catch fire.
With the Madras High Court functioning fully after a break for summer, it is to be hoped that the Sterlite Copper plant will get the necessary go-ahead to carry out their much-needed maintenance operations.