The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to stay the decision of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to process the reopening of the Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi, which was ordered to be closed down due to environmental pollution.
The Supreme Court Bench also stayed an order passed by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that the status quo “as on today” should be maintained till January 21 in respect of reopening of the plant.
Vedanta, which runs the plant, had moved the top court against the Madurai Bench’s decision.
The Supreme Court said the process of reopening the plant as per the National Green Tribunal’s order can continue.
This would mean that Sterlite’s ‘renewal of consent to operate’ application, pending with the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board, should be decided by the latter authority within three weeks as per the tribunal’s verdict. However, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami told the Assembly that the government would continue its legal battle to permanently shut down the copper smelter.
The apex court issued notice on the Tamil Nadu government’s appeal contending that the tribunal failed to consider the entire gamut of data, documents and evidence before directing the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to pass fresh orders of renewal of consent and issue authorisation to Vedanta Limited to handle hazardous substances.
The State argued that the tribunal went outside the four walls of the statute governing its functions to appoint a Committee led by former High Court chief justice Tarun Aggarwala to prepare a report in the case. It said the NGT was not a constitutional court like the Supreme Court. The Committee, having been formed, failed to consider any of the contentions as well as documents while preparing its report. The NGT had relied on the committee report.
The State contended that Vedanta had not been complying with pollution norms, and the situation had severely deteriorated since 1996. “Far from taking precautionary steps, the unit has wilfully flouted the norms and caused the present appalling situation where the groundwater contains TDS more than 20 to 40 times the permissible limit,” it said.
Besides, the appeal contended that the tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to adjudicate upon the validity of a government order. Only constitutional courts have the power and the jurisdiction to do so. “It is submitted that the jurisdiction conferred upon the tribunal under Section 14 (1) of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 does not include the power to examine the validity of government orders,” the appeal said.