The shutting down of the Sterlite continuous process smelter in Tuticorin last week, as well as an official order disconnecting power supply to the factory, has sent shock waves through the industrial community. Apart from loss of livelihood for thousands of people, and the economic impact of the closure, there are fears that such measures will stunt industrial growth.
"Sudden closure of plants such as this are unheard of in the world," says NS Venkataraman, secretary, Chemical Industries Association.
"The nature of continuous processes is such that restarts are long and time consuming processes. The temperature can be raised by only a few degrees daily, and to reach pre-closure levels and safely restart the smelter may take upto two weeks. TNPCB should have consulted experts in the field before recommending a shut down, " he feels.
However, recent developments indicate that restarting the plant is far in the horizon. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court over turned the ruling to shut the plant while simultaneously imposing a fine of Rs 100 crores , for flouting green norms .
The amount is to be paid over five years. The same Sterlite plant was ordered to be closed in 2010 for violating pollution norms, after which the company had filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court. This order will not impinge on TNPCB's procedure.
Hence last week's order by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to close the approximately Rs 2000 crore copper smelter factory run by Sterlite group may be seen as a double action. The green watchdog claims it took the extreme step after residents complained of gaseous leaks from the plant, and that the explanation given by Sterlite was unsatisfactory. Media reports have also quoted the district collector Asish Kumar as saying that every effort would be made to permanently shut down the factory.
"This is a knee jerk reaction" , says a chemical engineer who has nearly four decades of experience in the field of metals, peroxides and other volatile compounds. "Closure is not the solution, especially since there is plenty of technology available to contain emissions ," he adds. "Today, most industries take environment concerns very seriously, and there are quite a few copper smelters operating in India, including the government owned Hindustan Copper Limited. There are claims that the Sterlite has already installed a scrubber at the plant. The company should also be open to improving emission levels as and when necessary, so that industrial development remains an achievable target " he adds.
The crux of the problem at Sterlite lies in the emission of sulfur dioxide. When copper ore is smelted, apart from copper, sulfur dioxide also comes out. Factories such as Sterlite convert sulfur dioxide into sulfuric acid . It also produces phosphoric acid, which is used for manufacturing of fertilizers, say experts. "During the manufacturing stage, the entire quantum of sulfur dioxide cannot be absorbed in any facility, anywhere in the world, and a certain amount of emission is a fact," says Venkataraman. "Such emissions are not life threatening, but they can cause irritation to the eyes," he adds. Other experts say that since sulfur dioxide has a pungent smell, any leak can be detected early, and corrective measure can be taken.
Experts also say there are half a dozen sulfuric acid plants in the state, and in other states such as Kerala and Maharashtra. Estimates say anywhere between 8500 to 9000 sulfuric acid units are operating currently, across the world. "Will all those shut down as well?" ask the experts.
"Comparisons with the Bhopal plant are done by those who are misinformed, since that factory manufactured pesticides. TNPCB should engage with experts, specially those who have come to speed on the latest, sophisticated improvements made in the field ," emphasizes Venkataraman.
However, environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman says that the Supreme Court order is proof of environmental violation by Sterlite. " In the copper smelter process a number of heavy metals like arsenic are a by product , and unless safety norms are stringently followed, they can pollute the soil. The scrubber used on the floor will have heavy metal sediments, and when cleaned with water, will pollute the water as well. Sterlite has been found to have polluted air, water and soil and applying the principle of liability, and after assessing the magnitude of damage, they have been fined Rs 100 crore."
Why do companies flout norms, and what can be done to make them comply? " To ensure green compliance, you need a strong enforcement mechanism which will enable a violator to realize that is cheaper to follow environmental norms. Until now green offenders have found it cheaper to pay a fine," says Jayaraman.
While there are those who maintain that the Sterlite factory indulged in violations, the call for closure of the Sterlite plant has sent alarm bells among the industry fraternity. "The state is emerging with a very poor track record, when it comes to industrial development in the state, specially in South Tamil Nadu. Protest by a section of the people has already delayed the functioning of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant at Idinthakarai . A few days ago the state government refused permission to GAIL's Rs 1500 crore gas pipeline project , which envisaged an underground pipeline.
The larger worry for stake holders is the concern that other states like Gujarat might turn out to be attractive destination for industrial investors. A little bit of industrial temper may be the need of the hour.
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