It was a proposal that raised a few eyebrows, involved the Supreme Court, and required clearances from the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government. But when Vedanta proposed to reopen two oxygen plants at its controversial Sterlite Copper Smelter in Tuticorin -- shut for three years over allegations of pollution and a subsequent government order – the company said it would help in reducing the shortage of medical oxygen in the country.
As of May 28, Vedanta produced in excess of 200 MT of medical oxygen from the smelter in the last fortnight.
"The quantum that we've dispatched to different hospitals nearby is roughly 215 MT of medical oxygen in liquid form," says Sterlite Copper CEO, Pankaj Kumar in conversation with CNBC-TV18. But it wasn't easy.
Technical and logistical challenges aplenty
A snag in the plant's "cold box" just a few days after it reopened, threatened to derail its oxygen production and supply. "We expected some snags because the plant was shut for such a long time," Kumar adds, "We developed a leakage in our cold box, which took a while to set right. But ever since we restarted operations on May 19, we have been running continuously."
However, the challenges didn't end there. "We kept dealing with questions over how to transport this oxygen in a manner that can be useful to the people who need it," explains Kumar. "One of the ways was to transport it as liquid oxygen. Generally industrial oxygen plants are designed to produce gaseous oxygen, which is what is required in processes at copper or steel plant," he adds.
Kumar continues, "Of the total oxygen we produce, about 5 percent to 10 percent is liquid oxygen, generally produced in exigencies, and is exactly what plants like ours are giving to society."
Second oxygen plant to reopen this weekend
Vedanta is now set to reopen its second oxygen plant in a few days, which could double the smelter’s output of 30 MT of medical-grade liquid oxygen per day.
“Our first plant is completely stabilized in the production of 30 MT of 99 percent pure liquid oxygen per day,” says Kumar, “On Sunday we intend to restart our other plant, which will add another 30 MT. We will soon supply 70 MT to 80 MT of liquid oxygen per day to various states.”
The Sterlite Copper smelter has been operating its oxygen plants under the watchful eye of the Tamil Nadu Government constituted monitoring committee, given its chequered history surrounding alleged pollution and the social unrest that has taken place around the smelter, itself.
In May 2018, 13 protesters died in police firing while protesting the operation of Sterlite Copper. Various environmental groups have alleged that the presence and operation of the smelter has caused cancer and respiratory illnesses to surrounding villagers.
This was one of the reasons why even the partial reopening of the smelter, even for the production of life-saving oxygen, was bound to be a challenge in itself.
"It took some time before we could convince the Centre, State and Judiciary that we are good to run the oxygen plants, and give oxygen free of cost to people nearby who need it,” says Kumar, “We had challenges with respect to approvals, condition of the plant, with respect to finding the right people to run the plant at the time of a pandemic. I’m thankful that after two weeks, we’re running it comfortably and running it well."
(Edited by: By Jerome Anthony)