Vedanta's Sterlite Copper appoints new CEO amid battle to reopen India smelter

NEW DELHI, March 15 (Reuters) - Vedanta Ltd on Friday named metals industry veteran Pankaj Kumar as Sterlite Copper chief executive, amid struggles to reopen its smelter in southern India that was shut after police killed 13 demonstrators protesting against the plant.

Sterlite Copper, which operates a 400,000-tonne-per-year smelter in the South India port city of Thoothukudi, was forced to shut its plant by Tamil Nadu state in May, and is estimated to have lost more than $200 million since.

Kumar replaces P Ramnath, who led Sterlite for eight years. Under Ramnath, the smelter was ordered shut at least twice, including for an alleged gas leak in 2013.

Local residents and environmental activists have staged protests against the plant over allegations of pollution as well as the earlier gas leak. Vedanta says the claims of pollution are false, without any factual basis. It also denied being the source of the gas leak.

The chief executive replacement comes amid a drawn-out legal battle over the smelter that could be complicated further by federal elections that start on April 11. The two main political parties in Tamil Nadu state are against reopening the smelter, increasing the likelihood that the shutdown will continue.

Vedanta won a judgment in December from India’s Natural Green Tribunal that would have cleared the way to reopen the smelter, but India’s Supreme Court ruled in February that the environmental court did not have jurisdiction over the smelter.

“My tenure as the CEO has been an eventful journey, and as is the case with any journey, there have been numerous ups and downs,” Ramnath, who will continue as an advisor to the company, said in a statement.

Kumar, who will also oversee operations at Vedanta’s Malco Energy Limited and Fujairah Gold, has worked at Hindustan Zinc , Tata Steel and Adani Ports, in a career stretching over 29 years.

Kumar was also chief operating officer at Sterlite Copper in the past, the company said.

“It is an honour to be back in a place that feels like home,” he said. (Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Tom Hogue)