Almost exactly 17 months since the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board issued directions to seal Sterlite Copper’s infamous Tuticorin plant, the company has reiterated its request to re-enter the facility for maintenance checks. The appeal from the Vedanta-owned enterprise comes even as a case against the closure is being heard in the Madras High Court.
“While our priority is to have our case heard, conclude the hearing and then wait for the judgement from the High Court, we are working to ensure that the atmosphere is conducive for whatever order comes from the court,” said Pankaj Kumar, CEO, Sterlite Copper, speaking to CNBC-TV18.com.
‘Plant sans maintenance, a safety hazard’
Kumar added, “What we are requesting the government is this: we cannot operate the plant without a CTO (consent to operate), but must be allowed access to the plant to conduct maintenance. This is only so that the presence of the plant without maintenance should not become a safety hazard, tomorrow.”
Sterlite Copper has said, in the past that the presence of multiple pipelines, ducts and cooling towers at its Tuticorin plant requires frequent maintenance checks, failing which these components could suffer metallurgical decay. The resulting effect could be hazardous to residents in the vicinity of the plant itself.
Sterlite Copper's sulphuric acid storage tank shows signs of structural damage
Sterlite’s Tuticorin plant was sealed on May 28 2018, after the Tamil Nadu Government ordered its closure, endorsing the state’s pollution control board’s view that it was causing pollution to the district. Only a week earlier, 13 protesters demanding the plant’s closure were shot dead by state police personnel, even as these protests took a violent turn.
Widespread fiscal impact
Sterlite Copper has said that nearly 30,000 locals in Tuticorin have been affected by a lack of employment opportunities in ancillary industries, in the aftermath of the shutdown. The impact has spread to those working for truck companies that depend on the plant’s operation. The company’s 1,000 employees of the plant have also been affected by the non-functioning of the plant.
Phosphoric acid conveyors wear a derelict look at the plant
To make matters worse, downstream industries like fertilizer and chemical plants, which depend on sulphuric acid from Sterlite Copper, have also been impacted on account of the skyrocketing price of the product in the aftermath of the plant’s closure. Multiple downstream industries in the vicinity have reported buying sulphuric acid for Rs 9,000 per tonne as opposed to Rs 3,000, which was the prevailing rate when the plant was operational.
India now a net importer of copper
To add to this bleakness, a CARE Ratings report published last month has blamed the plant’s closure for the fall in India’s copper production last fiscal. “Production (of copper) fell by 46.1 percent during FY19 due to the permanent closure to Sterlite’s 400 KT copper factory in Tuticorin on May 28, 2018,” said CARE Ratings’ Indian Copper Industry Outlook, which also highlighted that for the first time in 18 years, India turned into a net importer of refined copper.
“Cumulative sales revenue of the copper industry has declined by 6.6 percent during FY15-19,” the report added, “Shutdown of the Tuticorin smelter too resulted in the fall of revenues by 32.1 percent during FY 19 on a year-to-year basis.”
‘Court must take a call’
When CNBC-TV18 contacted protesters in Tuticorin, to get their take on Sterlite’s appeal to re-enter the plant for maintenance, their response was non-committal. However, some feel that the decision on whether to allow the company to re-enter the premises for maintenance work should be left for the court to decide.
“I’m sure the court is better acquainted with the ability to decide on whether or not they (Sterlite Copper) should re-enter the plant’s premises for maintenance activity,” said Fatima Babu, a college professor, and protester, who shot to fame in Tuticorin as the coordinator of the Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement.
The plant's copper refinery has reportedly suffered from copper sulphate leakage in the aftermath of the shutdown
Babu added, “If Sterlite were to tell the court that their interest does not lie in producing copper but to only maintain the plant, the court could consider this request. We have done our part by handing over all evidence, and it is for the judiciary to decide whether or not it wants to grant access to the plant, even if it is for maintenance activity.”For the moment, however, Sterlite Copper has been in touch with the Tamil Nadu Government with its appeal, which has so far fallen on deaf ears. Given the degree of public sentiment surrounding the plant’s closure last year, there’s precious little to indicate that the Government will look favourably on the company’s request.