New Delhi/Chennai: The Supreme Court Tuesday allowed the Sterlite Industries' smelting copper plant to continue operations in Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin and asked it to deposit Rs.100 crore with the authorities to restore the environmental damage caused from 1997-2012.
Pointing to the various violations of environmental norms, the court said: "For such damages caused to the environment from 1997 to 2012 and for operating the plant without a valid renewal for a fairly long period, the appellant-company obviously is liable to compensate by paying damages."
The apex court bench of Justice A.K. Patnaik and Justice H.L. Gokhale said if the situation warranted then the plant could be closed or shifted to another place in order to protect the sensitive ecology of four of the 21 islands of Gulf of Munnar, less than 25 km distance from the unit.
"This is not to say that in case it becomes necessary for preservation of ecology of the aforesaid four islands, which form part of the Gulf of Munnar, the plant of the appellants cannot be directed to be shifted in future," the court said.
Setting aside the Madras High Court judgment by which it had ordered the closure of copper smelting plant, the apex court said Sterlite Industries (India) is "directed to deposit within three months from today a compensation of Rs.100 crore with the collector of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) district, which will be kept in a fixed deposit in a nationalised Bank for a minimum of five years, renewable as and when it expires..."
The court further said that the interest therefrom will be spent on suitable measures for improvement of the environment, including water and soil, in the vicinity of the plant.
In case the collector, after consultation with Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), "finds the interest amount inadequate, he may also utilize the principal amount or part thereof for the aforesaid purpose after approval from the Secretary, Environment, Government of Tamil Nadu", the court said.
"This judgment will not stand in the way of the TNPCB issuing directions to the appellant-company (Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd), including a direction for closure of the plant, for the protection of environment in accordance with law," the judges said.
Justifying the Rs.100 crore compensation amount, Justice Patnaik said: "Any less amount, would not have the desired deterrent effect on the appellant-company."
"The Tuticorin district administration should use the interest earned on the deposit to improve the environment," said V. Prakash, a lawyer for National Trust for Clean Environment (NTCE), an NGO and one of the respondents in the case.
The court said that its order directing the Sterlite Industries India Ltd. to pay damages of Rs.100 crore would not stand in the way of any other damage claims during that period by way of civil suit.
The court said that the figure of Rs.100 crore was not final and that in future if there were violations, damages could be demanded. "This amount is only for causing damages to the environment from 1997 to 2012," the court said.
In 2010, the high court directed the closure of the 400,000-tonne per annum plant of Sterlite Industries, which is part of Vedanta Resources group.
Challenging the high court order, Sterlite Industries contended that it was passed on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in 1994 based on the alleged deficiencies in compliance with the statutory environmental provisions at that time.
On March 30, the TNPCB had ordered closure of the smelter plant, which continues to be in force.
The TNPCB had ordered the closure after sulphur-di-oxide leaked from the plant March 23, affecting a large number of residents of Tuticorin.
According to Prakash, the Supreme Court said the TNPCB has the power to monitor the environment and pass appropriate orders.