From Bhopal to Tuticorin; The Inexcusable Bungling on the Environment Front

In the last few days, the coastal city of Tamil Nadu; Thoothukudi or Tuticorin has been in the prime national news. Following a turn of disastrous turn of events, a peaceful protest that had been running for the past 100 odd days, took a cataclysmic turn, ending with 13 dead and hundreds injured. Tuticorin dominated the news, the reporters were talking about it, the politicians were fighting over it, the courts were involved, and so on. All this over a copper smelting plant owned by Vedanta and functioning since 1997.
The Sterlite Copper Plant has been at the epicenter of controversies almost from the very point that it came into being. In fact, according to the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the plant had faced rejection by three states, Gujarat, Goa & Maharashtra, because of its pollution potential, before finally finding home in Tamil Nadu. Yet, there are a lot of accusations that Sterlite flouted environment norms by falsifying facts, and even submitting an inaccurate Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA). For instance, the report stated that plant is not located within 25 km of ecologically sensitive area, which was found to be wrong as the plant is located near Munnar Marine National Park, which is but 15 km away. In addition, the company did not conduct any public hearing as is mandated before the report submission.
Not only that, ever since the 400,000-tonne-capacity smelting plant came into being it has been beset by a range of issues. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the TNPCB have found evidence that Sterlite contaminated the groundwater, air, and soil with its effluents and also violated standards of operation. In 2004, a Supreme Court (SC) monitoring committee found the plant had not provided adequate infrastructure and facilities for management of highly toxic arsenic-containing wastes. The plant was also found to be emitting sulphur dioxide far in excess of the permissible standards. Then in 2010, the Madras High Court had ordered a shut down of the same plant, for violating environmental regulations. In 2013, the SC struck down the Madras High Court’s order, but imposed a Rs. 100 crore fine for polluting the environment and for operating the plant without a renewal of the consents by TNPCB. In the same year, a major leak of sulphur gas from the plant affected thousands in the town, leading to mass protests by local taxi and fishermen’s trade unions, among others, and the temporary closure of the plant. Sixteen workers died at the plant between 2007 & 2011, and the fatality rate remains very high.
In 2008, the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College submitted a report titled “Health Status and Epidemiological Study Around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, Thoothukudi.” The study covered a population of 80,725 people and compared the health status in villages around Sterlite with the average health status prevailing in the state and two other locations that did not have any major industries.

Here are a few of the findings:

* Iron content in the groundwater in Kumareddiapuram and Therku Veerapandiapuram, the site of the ongoing protests, were 17 and 20 times higher than permissible levels prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards for drinking water. Chronic exposure to iron through drinking water could result in chronic fatigue, joint pain, and abdominal pain.
* At 13.9%, respiratory diseases were significantly more prevalent in the areas surrounding the factory than in areas without industry and this was much higher compared to the state average. The incidence of asthmatic bronchitis is 2.8%, more than double the state average of 1.29%.
* The study also found that there were more people suffering from Ear, Nose, Throat (ENT) disorders near the factory. Among the ENT diseases, pharyngitis and sinusitis were very high.
* Myalgia, or general body pain, was another widely reported symptom in the study area closer to the factory.
* “Women in the [study] area had more menstrual disorders, like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhagiae… it needs an in-depth study,” the report stated.

This is not the first time that Vedanta has run into rough weather, in terms of environmental issues. There’s a long litany of such fall-backs. For instance, in Goa, Vedanta’s iron ore mining subsidiary Sesa Goa was the largest company indicted by the Shah Commission in 2012 for illegal mining, including failure to obtain leases or environmental clearance, and exporting 150 million tonnes of iron ore from Goa in 2010/11, while only declaring 76 million, their agreed export allowance. In June 2009, a Sesa Goa pit wall collapsed, drowning Advalpal village in toxic mine waste. Following the disaster, 9-year-old local boy Akash Naik filed a petition to stop the mine and mass protests were held, successfully halting it later that year.

In 2010, the environment ministry ordered a probe into allegations of encroachment of forest land by its BALCO plant in Chhattisgarh. Vedanta has a 51% stake in the plant, through its subsidiary Sterlite Industries. The probe was ordered in response to allegations that the BALCO plant has occupied forest land. The High Court ruled in favour of BALCO in 2013, and they were given legal possession of 600 acres of land.In Odisha, India, a ten-year struggle by indigenous communities and farmers led to a historic victory in 2014, when Vedanta was stopped from mining the sacred Niyamgiri Hills for bauxite, following a village referendum process, costing the company up to $10 billion in lost investment. Vedanta Aluminium Ltd had built the 1 million tonne Lanjigarh refinery at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills in 2004, and even expanded it six-fold, despite having no permission to mine bauxite from the hills above.

Coming back to the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin. While copper is an essential component of our digital lives in the form of conducting cables, the copper smelting process is quite damaging to the environment. In fact, smelting often produces large volumes of low concentration sulfur dioxide that is not worth further processing to remove the sulfur. Acid rain resulting from the combination of rain and SO2 can cause damage to crops, trees and buildings for many miles down-wind. As the acid rain falls to the earth, the acidity of soils, streams, rivers, and lakes is affected, harming the vegetation and living organisms in the area. Emissions from older smelters emit toxic oxides of metals, causing arsenic poisoning, which is responsible for heart disease, and mercury, which causes nerve damage.
The saddest part of the Tuticorin episode is that for all this while, the residents of the town were raising the issues, but none paid heed. They were systematically failed by the authorities and even the media, that arrives only when there is a blood sacrifice.
Yet, the environmental issues that have beset Sterlite are neither unique to the company or for that matter other companies in India. For far too long, there has been an almost cavalier attitude when it comes to issues related to the environment. In fact, many companies consider environmental degradation as a collateral cost to progress and development. Sadly, this view is also subscribed by many in power and in media. It is only in the face of severe backlashes, like the one witnessed in Tuticorin that authorities are coerced into action.
If only, the processes that are laid down had been properly followed, like a detailed EIA, etc. The company has been continuously talking about how it has followed the EHS norms and invited observers to look at it. But then, it is not within the confines that is an issue, it is the impact the plant is having outside that should be the main concern.
And so the matter drags on. From the nuclear plant in Jaitapur to the dam in Tehri or the Dabhol, there is no end to the environmental confrontation. India has the dubious distinction of being home to the biggest industrial disaster when thousands were killed through a gas leak in Bhopal. The rules are there, the judgments made by SC too, yet, so much seems amiss.
Let’s just hope that the tragedy of Tuticorin is just an exception, not a reflection of how things would be.
Team Suszero

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