* Court asks expert panel to inspect the plant
* Panel to submit report on April 29
* Month-long closure could further drive up premiums in Asia
* Stocks in Asian warehouses seen sufficient to meet demand
By Anupama Chandrasekaran
CHENNAI, India, April 12 (Reuters) - India's largest copper
smelter, run by Sterlite Industries Ltd, will not
start commercial production until at least April 29, when a
court will again consider a request to reopen the plant, shut
over complaints of emissions.
The month-long closure of the plant could further drive up
premiums for copper in Asia, but traders and analysts said there
may be enough stocks to meet demand in India for about a month.
An expert panel will inspect the plant between April 18 and
29, Justice M. Chockalingam of the National Green Tribunal said
after a hearing in the fast-track environmental court on Friday.
"The factory will be opened for required hours of operation
to assist inspection," he said, adding that the panel would hand
in its report on April 29.
Sterlite declared force majeure on copper deliveries after
the March 30 closure of the plant, based in the southern state
of Tamil Nadu. It produces about 350,000 tonnes of the metal a
year and exports about half of that.
Most of India's copper exports go to China, the world's
biggest consumer of the metal, which used up around 9 million
tonnes last year -- vastly more than India's annual consumption
of around 600,000 tonnes.
Sterlite, a unit of London-listed resources conglomerate
Vedanta Resources Plc, which is waiting for approvals to
double the capacity of the smelter to 800,000 tonnes per year,
welcomed the formation of the panel.
"This should have been done before the Tamil Nadu Pollution
Control Board took a decision to stop a running plant abruptly
without proper basis," said P. Ramnath, chief executive of
Sterlite's copper business, referring to the state emissions
State authorities ordered the closure after nearby residents
complained about emissions, saying they had caused burning in
the throat and difficulties in breathing.
Sterlite, which has said the plant's emissions were within
agreed limits, told Reuters on April 3 it had declared force
majeure on copper sales and concentrate purchases. The smelter
uses imported copper concentrates as its main raw material.
Force majeure is a contract clause that allows a company to
miss shipments in circumstances beyond its control.
Indian end-users had stepped up enquiries for copper cathode
as well as scrap following the closure, a Singapore-based trader
said last week.
However, there could be enough stocks in Asian warehouses to
meet immediate demand, experts said.
"People are not as worried about supply outages as in
previous years," said analyst Dan Smith of Standard Chartered in
"The price has gone up a bit, but not a lot. I think that
tells you there is a comfortable amount of stock out there in
various locations and the availability of copper is reasonably
Sterlite's smelter in the coastal town of Tuticorin near the
southern tip of India has long been the target of protesters and
politicians who say it is a risk to the local fishing industry.
Last week, India's top court fined Sterlite 1 billion rupees
($18.33 million) in a different case for breaking environmental
laws at the smelter, which has operated since 1996.
In that ruling, the Supreme Court said levels of chromium,
copper and lead were higher than stipulated in some of the
groundwater samples collected from the area where the smelter is
based, though emission of sulphur dioxide was within limits set
by the state emissions regulator.