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Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board orders Sterlite plant closure

March 31, 2013

V Mayilvaganan
Times of India

TUTICORIN: The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board on Saturday issued a closure notice to the controversy-dogged Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tuticorin, forcing it to shut down. The board's closure notice comes in the wake of "unsatisfactory" explanation to the show cause notice issued to the plant by district collector Ashish Kumar, after a suspected sulphur di-oxide leak from the plant on March 23.

Soon after receiving TNPCB's order, the district administration snapped power supply to the Sterlite plant. On Saturday morning, a team of officials led by Tuticorin revenue divisional officer Latha visited the plant and served the closure notice. Sterlite authorities had initially resisted the closure move stating that the plant cannot be shut down all of a sudden and the controlling units could be switched off only in three phases. But after a strict warning to adhere to the closure notice, Sterlite authorities shut down all operations.

D Dhanavel, general manager, Sterlite, said the operations of the plant had been completely shut down. "We are discussing the next course of action," he said.

MDMK leader Vaiko, who has been staging a legal battle for shutting of the plant, has welcomed the closure and thanked chief minister J Jayalalithaa for the order. The closure of the plant sparked celebrations across Tuticorin as people distributed sweets and set off fireworks in Rajaji Park, the site of the massive protest on March 28. But Sterlite has been maintaining that on March 23 when the gas leak incident happened, the company was shut down. "Our emissions were within permissible limits on March 23. There are no violations of pollution norms on our part," said a Sterlite spokesperson.

But district administration said the plant had exceeded permissible limits of sulphur di-oxide emissions. "Inspections by TNPCB officials has revealed sulphur di-oxide emissions exceeding the Supreme Court stipulated levels from Sterlite," said collector Ashish Kumar. On March 23, following the gas leak, residents in and around the plant suffered irritation in the eyes, sore throat and suffocation.

The closure order has come at a time when the fate of the multi-crore plant is to be decided by the Supreme Court. The judgment on a case demanding permanent closure of Sterlite would be delivered on April 2. The plant was facing stiff protest from people even before it was commissioned in the port town in 1997. The plant also witnessed an industrial accident in its initial years. In 1998, Vaiko filed a writ petition in the Madras high court seeking its closure. The high court gave an interim order to close the plant, but it was reopened in 1999. After a prolonged legal battle, the Madras high court ordered permanent closure of the plant in 2010, which was challenged by Sterlite in the Supreme Court.

It is not just MDMK that was staging a series of protests against the plant, but the traders led by influential Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangam, environmental groups, fishermen and general public who wanted the unit to be closed. Beginning with the first protest in the form of a hunger strike on March 5, 1996, several rallies, road blockades, black flag protests and attempts to besiege the plant were staged. The protests witnessed a surge after March 23, when the gas leak sparked panic. There was a near total shut down of trade outlets on March 28 when more than 1,500 people marched towards the plant to besiege it. Often the protests also spread to nearby Kovilpatti and Srivaikuntam towns.

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