* Sterlite Industries smelter closed after complaints over
* Company denies smelter source of emissions
* Fast-track environmental court to hear petition to allow
smelter to reopen
* Being closely watched by environmentalists and copper
By Anupama Chandrasekaran
TUTICORIN, India, April 9 Housewife A. Puneeta
was washing dishes on a foggy Saturday morning when suddenly her
throat began to burn. Coughing hard and struggling to breathe,
she rushed into the street to find her neighbours running,
haphazardly, in panic.
"First people said there was a gas leak, and then someone
said Sterlite seemed to have opened up something, and that's the
cause of the throat burning," said Puneeta, 32, who is married
to a fisherman in this port town near the southern tip of India.
She was referring to Sterlite Industries, a unit
of London-based Vedanta Resources, which operates
India's biggest copper smelter a few miles (kilometres) away,
and which has been shut by authorities despite the firm denying
the smelter was to blame for the emissions in the area on March
Other residents recounted similar stories. Two spoken to
separately by Reuters also said the emissions caused leaves on
plants and trees to wither and drop in front of their eyes,
while another, who is asthmatic, said she struggled to breath as
she walked home from church and had to use her Ventolin inhaler.
The plant employs 4,000 and supports thousands more jobs
indirectly. But since opening in 1996 it has split this coastal
city between residents who say it is crucial for the local
economy and farmers and fishermen who see it as a health hazard.
Similar debates are playing out across India where disputes
over safety, the environment and livelihoods overshadow the
efforts of Asia's third-largest economy to industrialize. Just
100 km (62 miles) south, in Kudankulam, fishermen are fiercely
opposing a new nuclear power plant.
Tuticorin and Kudankulam sit on the Gulf of Munnar, famed
for its pearls, coral reefs, and marine life. Environmental
activists who say Sterlite is damaging the region's ecology have
been fighting for years to close the smelter permanently.
The state of Tamil Nadu's Pollution Control Board closed the
smelter until further notice late last month and said a sensor
in the smelter's smokestack showed sulphur dioxide levels were
more than double the permitted concentration at the time
emissions were reported.
Sterlite denied the smelter, which makes half the copper
India produces every year, was the source. The smelter's general
manager of projects said there were no emissions at the time
because the plant was starting up after two days of maintenance,
not producing copper, and high readings in the smokestack were
likely a result of workers recalibrating the sensors.
On Tuesday, a fast-track environmental court will hear a
petition to allow it to reopen, a move being closely watched by
environmentalists and the global copper market.
HISTORY OF ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION
Anti-smelter activist P.A. Dharmaraj does not see eye-to-eye
with his neighbour, who is a supporter of the plant. The former
farmer says pollution from the smelter two km (1.4 miles) from
his house had poisoned crops, driving him out of business.
"As soon as sulphur dioxide started being emitted by the
Sterlite plant, the rainfall naturally decreased," he said.
"Rain ... will not fall on our lands since then. Our crops also
started getting scorched because of the emissions."
Sulphur dioxide emissions can cause acid rain, although the
impact on weather patterns is more complex, scientists say. U.S.
advocacy group the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide in 2010
said a soil sample taken from outside Dharmaraj's house
contained arsenic levels ten times that considered safe in
Britain, as well as high quantities of toxins such as cadmium.
In the courtyard of Dharmaraj's house, his neighbour M.
Mariammal argued in favour of the plant - where her son, a
graduate, works as a supervisor. She does, however, now buy
bottled water because of concerns that wells may have been
polluted, but said it was a price worth paying.
"I wouldn't have money to buy either water or rice if my son
didn't have that job," she said.
Sterlite has a history of environmental pollution after a
2005 government study said the smelter leaked arsenic and heavy
metals into the soil and water. The company says it has since
complied with recommendations by pollution authorities to
improve environmental standards.
India's Supreme Court last week fined Sterlite $18.4 million
for polluting water, soil, and air around the plant and
documented 15 years of abuses. The ruling, part of a
long-running case brought by environmental activists, came just
days after the suspected gas leak.
The court cited the 2005 government study that found levels
of arsenic in ground water near the site were eight times those
recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Cadmium,
chromium, copper and lead levels also exceeded drinking water
standards in some wells.
Despite imposing the fine, the Supreme Court sided with
Sterlite and overruled a lower court in Tamil Nadu that had
ordered the smelter to shut down. The Supreme Court said the
plant was a big source of employment, copper and revenue and the
firm had taken steps since last year to stop the pollution.
5,000 ESTIMATED TO BE AFFECTED
A document from Tamil Nadu state's Pollution Control Board
obtained by Reuters said Sterlite released two gas plumes early
on the morning of March 23, containing as much as 2,941.12
milligrams per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide, almost off the
sensor's chart and more than double a government limit for
"The recording was about 3,000. The sensor can record only
up to 3,000," Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board Chairman D.
The pollution board does not have an air measuring station
in the area of town affected, 5 km (3 miles) downwind from the
smelter, but it said reported symptoms suggested levels there
could have hit 13,000 micrograms per cubic metre - massively
exceeding a national ambient air quality limit of 80 micrograms
per cubic metre for sulphur dioxide.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns against
exposure of more than 1,430 micrograms for three hours a year.
Sterlite's general manager of projects, D. Dhanavel, said
the high sulphur dioxide readings could have been due to workers
adjusting the sensors on the smokestack after the maintenance.
"Whenever we start the factory, we calibrate all the
instruments," said Dhanavel. "Now we have to check if it was a
calibration error or some other issue."
That explanation did not satisfy pollution authorities.
After giving Sterlite five days to explain, the pollution board
ordered the plant to close until further notice.
"The reply of the unit is unsatisfactory and untenable," the
board said in its order to close the plant, seen by Reuters.
No serious health problems have been reported so far, but
the office of Tuticorin's district collector, the town's most
senior government official, estimates up to 5,000 people were
affected by the emissions.
The future of the plant - which is seeking approval to
double its capacity to 800,000 tonnes per year - now hinges on
the decision of the National Green Tribunal.
Pollution Control Board lawyer Abdul Saleem said the company
would have to appeal again to the Supreme Court if the tribunal
rules against it.