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TN allows Vedanta to temporarily reopen, comapny opposes operation of oxygen plant by govt

Chennai/New Delhi: Tamil Nadu on Monday granted temporary permission to a shuttered copper plant in Thoothukudi to reopen for medical oxygen production for four months, almost three years after the facility was closed over pollution concerns after the deaths of 13 protesters in police firing
By Divya Chandrababu and Utkarsh Anand
PUBLISHED ON APR 27, 2021 12:37 AM IST

Chennai/New Delhi: Tamil Nadu on Monday granted temporary permission to a shuttered copper plant in Thoothukudi to reopen for medical oxygen production for four months, almost three years after the facility was closed over pollution concerns after the deaths of 13 protesters in police firing.

Hours later, Vedanta Industries, the plant’s owner, opposed the Supreme Court’s suggestion to let Tamil Nadu government operate the oxygen producing unit at the plant, saying “it is just beyond the competency and financial ability of the government to run this oxygen plant.” The next hearing in the case is on Tuesday.

Last week, Vedanta moved the Supreme Court for permission to operate its oxygen producing unit at the Thoothukudi’s Sterlite copper plant, which was shut down in May 2018, citing dire oxygen shortages across the country dealing with surging Covid-19 infections. The Madras high court in August 2020 rejected Vedanta’s petition to reopen the plant. The Supreme Court also rejected requests to reopen the plant for a trial run on January 22 this year..

To be sure, the Tamil Nadu government order didn’t mention that the administration will run the plant but mentioned that a government committee, including civil society members, will be set up to oversee the plant’s functioning.

Submitting its affidavit in the apex court, Vedanta said the oxygen plant must be operated by its own team, under possible supervision of a central government’s expert body such as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) or the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF).

“The running of the oxygen plant by the state government is likely to pose grave danger not only to the assets but to the personnel deployed for operation, as the operation critically involves the operation of high-pressure vessels, heavy duty compressors, high voltage equipment and proprietary control systems. There is a high probability that if untrained personnel were to operate the oxygen plant, the quality of oxygen produced can be substandard and may not be safe for use,” stated its affidavit in the top court.

The Tamil Nadu government decision came after an all-party meeting passed a unanimous resolution that set five rules: only the oxygen unit will function, not the copper smelter; preference for oxygen will be Tamil Nadu; a supervising committee under the district collector, superintendent of police, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, two state officials knowledgeable in oxygen production along with civil society, non-governmental organisations and anti-Sterlite protestors, will be formed ; admission passes will be given to workers operating the oxygen unit; and the state will provide security and supply electricity for four weeks, or howsoever long the plant functions, depending on oxygen needs.

“This is only a temporary permission and attempts shouldn’t be made to turn this into a permanent permission to produce oxygen or to reopen the facility,” Thoothukudi MP K Kanimozhi who was present at the meeting told the media.

The meeting led by chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami was attended by representatives from eight political parties including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, Left and other regional parties.

The copper unit was sealed by the state government in May 2018, days after 13 agitators were killed in police firing during a violent protest against pollution caused by the facility in the southern district.

Reopening of the plant continues to be a sensitive issue in Tamil Nadu as local residents and activists fear that the company is attempting to gain back-door entry. “This polluting company made it hard for us to breathe and now they want to help in oxygen production? It seems suspicious to us and we will never accept for it to be reopened,” said S Gunaseelan, an anti-Sterlite activist in Thoothukudi.

In the top court last week, Vedanta’s plea was opposed by the Tamil Nadu government, citing law and order and local residents’ anger towards the company.

The state’s resistance had prompted the court to asks the Tamil Nadu government if it was willing to operate the plant on its own. “When people are dying, can a state say we will still not run it because there could be law and order problems or that Vedanta did this and that? We are not on who will produce. Let Tamil Nadu government produce it if they have a problem with Vedanta,” it had asked the state.

In its response, Vedanta maintained that its oxygen plant had a capacity of 1050 MT per day and that this plant is a non-polluting unit which can be operated without touching the copper smelter.

“The only intent of the petitioner in running the oxygen plant is to initiate the production within 7-14 days, in order to cater to states, which are in need of oxygen supply for treating the Covid patients... Further, the petitioner undertakes that it will not carry out any kind of production activities apart from the production of oxygen under the directions of this Hon’ble Court,” said Vedanta.

It stated that the state government did not have the requisite expertise or personnel for the maintenance and operation of the oxygen plant and that in view of the national emergency triggered by the surge in infection, the Tamil Nadu government must fulfil its sacrosanct responsibility of maintaining law and order.

Separately, during a suo motu hearing on the health infrastructure of Tamil Nadu to manage Covid-19, the state informed Madras high court that only limited supply of liquefied oxygen may be initially available through the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi. “But the owners have assured the state that immediate measures would be taken to put in place a system by which gaseous oxygen will be converted into liquefied oxygen for medical use with the appropriate content in excess of 99% oxygen,” the order copy of the case read. The high court didn’t delve into the matter further as it is being dealt with by the Supreme Court.

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