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Sterlite plant closure and its impact

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The Tamil Nadu government has ordered the Vedanta group's subsidiary Sterlite Industries’s copper plant in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) to close it down ‘permanently’ following violent protest. The decision was taken after police firing during the protest in which 13 people were killed. Despite, the closure of the plant, the issue continues to remain alive and there are still many unanswered questions.

History of Sterlite and its copper smelting plant

In 1991, Vedanta Group’s Sterlite Industries proposed to set up a copper smelting plant in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. The Maharashtra government immediately accepted the proposal, it directed the Maharastra Industrial Development Corporation for the project. Around 500 acres of land was allotted. In 1993, foundation for the project began and Sterlite Industries was allowed to import materials. But soon, local people learnt about the adverse effects of emissions from copper plants and began to demand shutdown of the plant. But Sterlite Industries continued with the construction. But locals gather in thousands and demolished some parts of the construction. With the intervention of the state, the construction was permanently halted. Sterlite Industries turned towards Tamilnadu government and proposed to setup the plant. But within a year, licences were granted. Though environmentalists and local people opposed the move, the TN government and Sterlite went ahead with construction. Many fishermen protested citing that the plant just 14 Kms from the Gulf of Mannar (GoM), an important and protected bio-reserve.

Importance of Copper

Copper is a ductile metal and commonly found in nature. It is a pure metal, which is well known for its electrical conductivity. Due to its ductile nature, it is mostly used in construction and plumbing industries throughout the world. Metallic copper can be easily molded or shaped, with the reddish color it is found in mixtures of metals such as brass and bronze.

Danger of Copper smelting

Despite the wide use of copper, extractive metallurgical and smelting processes can be highly polluting. Many facilities that carry out metal and smelting processes are known to emit high quantities of air pollutants such as hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, offensive and noxious smoke fumes, vapors, gases, and other toxins. These can greatly impact the health of the residents around the plant. Long-term exposure to copper dust can irritate nose, mouth, and eyes, and cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. Drink water that contains higher than normal levels of copper, can create nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, or diarrhea. Intentional or accidental high intakes of copper can cause liver and kidney damage and even death.

Impact on environment

Copper production is a highly polluting process requiring very stringent regulations. Over two decades, farmers and fishermen communities in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Tamil Nadu have been raising concerns over pollution of ground and seawater. Besides, release huge amount of toxic gases into the atmosphere. They have been claiming that the factory has severely affected their livelihoods through its chemical discharge. High levels of iron, arsenic, cadmium and nickel, all of which are toxic, are found in the soil samples collected in the region around the plant. Water samples collected vicinity shows high level of sulfate and calcium. It is an indication that Sterlite has contaminated water supplies. The water is unfit for direct consumption or agriculture. In 2013, after a severe leak of sulphuric acid that led to residents suffering various symptoms of poisoning, there have been demands for the closure of the plant. Finally, the Supreme Court found that Sterlite is the culprit and imposed a fine of Rs 100 crores.

Impact on copper industry and India

Many industry experts feel that the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Tamil Nadu, would increase domestic supply of copper. Some predict that such a move could even turn India into a net importer of primary copper. How ? The answer is very simple, India produces about 8,70,000 tonne of primary copper in the 2017-18, of which around 40-45 percent came from the Sterlite plant alone. With the copper plant already shutdown from March 27, 2018 for maintenance, a permanent shut down following the TN government order, would definitely increase the domestic consumption and could also increase the price of copper. Such a shortage will last until other big players like Hindalco and Hindustan Copper increase production or government increase its import. If the demand is not met, electric appliance manufacturers would import more copper, which would either increase the price of copper or home appliance. Some also point out the automobile companies would increase the price of the vehicles since some components are also made of copper.

What is the solution ?

The only solutions should be designing and operating modernized, processing plants and smelters which can release gases with lower levels of toxicity. This process can be applied not just for Sterlite plant, but also to all copper smelters across the country. However, such environmental projects can be relatively costly and many companies could hesitate. So government can help them with form of subsidies in terms of equipment import. Older plants have a history of polluting the surrounding area, where metal dust may have spread toxic pollutants over wide areas and several years of acid releases can result in greater environmental damage. So one has to improve the quality of operations in the plants, older smelters are often very poor in terms of emissions control must be redesigned or replaced with good quality of equipment.