SC allows Vedanta to run oxygen plant in TN for national requirement during pandemic

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New Delhi, Apr 28 (PTI) The Supreme Court has allowed Vedanta to operate its closed oxygen plant at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu in view of 'national requirement' amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat directed the Tamil Nadu government to form an oversight committee to oversee the functioning of the plant.

It was closed in May 2018 after 13 people in the area were killed in police firing during protests over pollution concerns related to the company's copper smelting operations.

“We are inclined to allow the prayer (of Vedanta) for permitting the operation of the oxygen plant on a stand-alone basis for meeting the national requirements during the pandemic. “This shall not create any equities in favour of the applicant to demand or expect the running of the plant as a whole in the future. The present order is being passed only in view of the present need to enhance the availability of medical grade oxygen at this time,” the bench said its Tuesday's order uploaded on Wednesday.

Accepting the memo filed on behalf of Tamil Nadu, the apex court asked the state government to form a committee comprising Collector, Tuticorin as Chairperson, Superintendent of Police of Tuticorin, Sub Collector of Tuticorin, District Environmental Engineer, state pollution control board, a government officer having technical knowledge of oxygen plants and two environmental experts.

“The environmental experts are to be chosen by the tenth respondent (organisation of affected families) from a panel proposed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The MOEF shall indicate the proposed names for the panel to the State of Tamil Nadu within a period of four working days. The affected families' organisation 'shall be at liberty to indicate its choice of any two members from the panel drawn up by the MOEF, within two days thereafter, failing which, the names of the two experts shall be nominated by the State of Tamil Nadu from out of the panel”, the bench said.

The top court made it clear that the plant shall be operated only for the purpose of producing medical grade oxygen and for no other purpose.

“The applicant shall not under the present order be entitled to enter upon the copper smelting plant or any of its appurtenant facilities, including for maintenance.

The applicant shall abide by all previous directions which have been issued by this Court, save and except for the present modification permitting it to operate only the oxygen plant,” the bench said.

The role of the Committee to be nominated by the state government will be to oversee the proper functioning of the oxygen plant in compliance with the above directions, it said.

The apex court said the oxygen plant shall be run and managed by the Vedanta subject to such directions as may be issued by the Committee to secure compliance with environmental and safety norms.

“Before allowing the entry of any of the workers into the plant, the applicant shall submit to the Committee a plan indicating the number of workers and other technical and non-technical staff essential for running the oxygen plant. “The Committee shall on due verification take a decision on the number of persons to be permitted within the premises of the plant for the purpose only of managing and conducting the oxygen production facility,” it said.

The committee will be at liberty to engage with the residents of the area to redress any legitimate concern in regard to the nature or modalities for operating the oxygen plant on a stand-alone basis, it said. “The Committee will be at liberty to have a safety audit conducted before the operations commence and to issue suitable directions to ensure safety of operations; “The applicant shall not under the garb of the present order be permitted to commence operations of the copper smelting plant nor shall any application be entertained in that regard,” it said.

The bench clarified that the order for permitting the operation of the oxygen plant on a stand-alone basis shall remain in force until July 31 2021, at which point of time, a decision will be taken based on the current state of the pandemic at that time. Tamil Nadu shall expedite the grant of necessary permissions for obtaining electricity and other utilities to ensure the expeditious commencement of the generation of medical grade oxygen, it said.

During the hearing, senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Vedanta, had submitted that the unit would run only the oxygen plant for catering to the national demand of medical grade oxygen and will not run either the copper smelting plant and its associated facilities or the power plant.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for organisation of pollution affected families, had stated that they accept the need for supplying oxygen during the course of the current pandemic and that all necessary efforts will be taken to support the national requirement.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had submitted that the oxygen produced by the stand-alone oxygen plant of the applicant will enhance the availability of oxygen for meeting the medical requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vedanta, in August last year, moved the apex court challenging the Madras High Court order refusing to allow reopening of the Tuticorin plant.

The high court had upheld the orders of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) directing closure of the unit in May 2018. PTI PKS MNL SJK SA