India closes Vedanta copper smelter permanently after bloody protest

THOOTHUKUDI, India (Reuters) - An Indian state on Monday ordered the permanent closure of a copper smelter controlled by London-listed Vedanta Resources after 13 people protesting to demand its shutdown on environmental concerns were killed last week.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows Sterlite Industries Ltd's copper plant, a unit of London-based Vedanta Resources, in Tuticorin, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu April 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

“We have taken a decision to permanently shut down the plant and today issued government orders to do the same,” Edappadi K Palaniswami, chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu said in a statement after meeting officials, including from the pollution department.

Residents and environmental activists have long demanded a shutdown of the copper smelter, India’s second-biggest with an annual production of more than 400,000 tonnes, citing air and water pollution. Vedanta denies the accusations of pollution.

The company on Monday called the closure of the plant it has operated for over 22 years an “unfortunate development”.

“We will study the order and decide on the future course of action,” Vedanta told Reuters in a statement.

As news of a government order to shut the plant spread, about 100 locals gathered to witness the sealing of the smelter’s main entrance. Fatima Babu, a long-time campaigner against the plant, arrived at the smelter’s entrance shouting “Thank you authorities”.

“We are finally free, we could have been happier if so many people had not died. This is for all of them,” Muthu Pandi, a driver who had come to see the plant being shut, told Reuters.

The district’s main administrative officer, called the collector, supervised the sealing as the crowd whistled and cheered from behind police barricades placed 50 meters away from the entrance. They shouted “Long live the collector,” as the collector’s car departed.

In the heart of the city, locals gathered near an electrical appliances showroom to watch the news on TV channels.

The chief of Vedanta’s India copper business, P. Ramnath, told Reuters on Friday the company would legally fight any attempt to close the plant and it aimed to “build our bridges” with the community.

The plant, in the coastal city of Thoothukudi, has been shut since late March for maintenance and pending a renewal of its license, even as residents continued largely peaceful protests demanding it be shut for good.

The opposition escalated on Tuesday when thousands of people marched towards a government office on the 100th day of the protest. Ten people were killed in police firing that day; three more died in subsequent days.

Vedanta says it has already evacuated about 3,500 employees from the plant site due to the tensions.

Additional reporting by Malini Menon; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Robert Birsel/David Evans