India-based Neutrino Observatory project gets Centre’s approval, ball in Tamil Nadu's court

The INO in Theni district, which suffered multiple delays having caught-up in political activism, has been cleared by Environment Ministry after a geo-technical probe report allayed ecological fears.

Published: 15th March 2018 04:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th March 2018 08:16 AM   |  A+A-

The proposed site of the INO, near Bodi West Hills in Theni district | Express Photo

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In a major development, India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project in Theni district, which suffered multiple delays having caught-up in political activism, has been cleared by the Expert Appraisal Committee (Infra-2) (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).

The committee has recommended grant of environment clearance for India’s most ambitious basic science project, which would come up in Bodi West Hills at Pottipuram village in Uthamapalayam taluk of Theni district. However, the panel clarified that the project cannot move any further without the statutory clearances from Tamil Nadu government.  

During its meeting on March 5, the committee acknowledged that proposals were not within the scope of EAC, but the ministry wanted the EAC (Infra-2) to consider this as a special case and that based on built up area and total area considerations, identified it as a category 8(a) ‘Building and Construction’ project.  
The decision to recommend for environmental clearance was taken after going through the geo-technical investigation report on studies carried out for locating underground laboratory of INO at Pottipuram and deliberating with officials from Defence Research and Development Organisation. The committee also set aside the concerns of radio activity or leaching of water, besides having no impact of blasting on inhabitation in the vicinity.

Speaking to Express, INO project director Vivek Datar expressed happiness over the  development, but said, “We have only crossed one hurdle. We still have to get consent to establish/operate from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board as required under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Besides, clearance from the National Board for Wildlife, for which application has already been filed, is needed. We hope the project will progress smoothly henceforth and bring laurels for India.”

Prafulla Kumar Behera, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, IIT Madras, said Tamil Nadu government is now pro-active on implementation of INO project. “INO-collaboration meeting has been organised by Inter Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics (IICHEP) in Madurai next week, wherein scientists from about 24 institutions across the country will be participating and discuss on how to fast-track the project.”

Safeguards imposed

The EAC has stipulated specific environmental safeguards. Besides getting consent from the pollution board and national wildlife board, the project proponent was asked to prepare a detailed Environmental Management Plan (EMP) after studying the best practices of other similar laboratories located globally. Also, a dedicated environment monitoring cell shall be put in place to implement the EMP.

The laboratory was asked to draw up and implement a comprehensive risk and disaster management plan and seek necessary approvals as required. The Plan should include emergency response based on the consequence analysis studies. It was also asked to draw up a plan for disposal of excavated material with the concurrence of forest department and revenue department. Water requirement from Mullai Periyar river shall not exceed 340 KLD.

“Approval from competent authority for structural safety of buildings, necessary clearance/ permission from all relevant agencies, including town planning authority, before commencement of work should be obtained. Hazard mapping should be done,” the minutes of EAC meeting, a copy of which is available with Express, says.  

Grey areas remain

Though EAC has cleared the project, the grounds on which the decision has been taken is being questioned. The project has been approved under category 8 (a)  ‘Building and Construction Projects’ of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. The general condition under the notification says any project specified in Category ‘B’ will be treated as Category ‘A’, if located in whole or in part within 5 km from the boundary of protected areas notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

“This project falls within 5 km of Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki District, Kerala. The National Green Tribunal, while putting the earlier environmental clearance in abeyance has clearly said it was Category ‘A’ project, which meant Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and pubic hearing has to be conducted. Centre can’t arbitrarily consider it as a special case and bend rules,” said G Sundararajan of ‘Poovulagin Nanbargal’, who added  he would challenge the environment clearance.

Why scientists want INO in Tamil Nadu

  • Choice of site is primarily dictated by the rock quality
  •  Mountains in Southern parts of India are compact, dense rock mostly gneiss, whereas the Himalayan region consists of metamorphic sedimentary rock with pockets of gneiss
  • A considerable area of peninsular India, the Indian shield, consists of Archean gneisses and schists, which are the oldest rocks found in India. While the Karnataka region has more schists type rocks, Tamil Nadu region has mainly Charnockite, which is the hardest rock known
  • Hence, the mountains of TN are the most attractive one, offering stable dense rocks with maximum safety for locating a cavern

Proposal cannot be appraised by the State: SEAC

When the proposal came before State Expert Appraisal Committee/State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEAC/SEIAA) during its 98th meeting held on November 27, 2017, for grant of environment clearance under category ‘B’ of item 8(a) ‘Building and Construction Projects’ of the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006, the SEAC noted that this proposal cannot be appraised by the State under the said category since it involves many technical features like tunnelling and excavation of six lakh cubic metre of Charnockite rock from the mountain other than a mere construction. “This project should be appropriately handled by Government of India,” SEIAA concluded.  

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