THOOTHUKUDI: The district administration has constituted a local management committee for identifying suitable vendors for evacuating hazardous materials from the defunct Sterlite Copper premises. An order issued by collector K Senthil Raj dated May 29 allowed for evacuation of the remaining gypsum, operation of SLF leachate collection sump pump and SLF-4 bund rectification, while maintaining a status quo on maintenance of green belt and clearing of wild bushes and dry trees under the supervision of the Ottapidaram block development officer.
The nine-member local management committee headed by sub-collector includes Thoothukudi Rural DSP, joint director of directorate of industrial safety and health, district environmental engineer of TNPCB, district fire officer, executive engineer (planning) of Thoothukudi municipal corporation, BDO of Ottapidaram union, and administrative and technical representatives of Vedanta.
The committee will identify and approve vendors who have experience in executing such evacuation work. The vendors must evacuate 1.25 lakh tonnes of remaining gypsum and other works between 6 am and 6 pm every day as per another order dated October 9, 2018. The public can also examine CCTV footage and log book maintained at the sub-collector office’s control room.
The state government had entrusted the Sterlite Copper employees with removing over 14 types of hazardous materials between June 30, 2018, and April 25, 2022, under the supervision of a local-level monitoring committee. This decision raised concerns as the process was delayed and the public questioned the rationale behind allowing the same company, which was indicted for pollution and violating TNPCB norms, to handle the evacuation process.
Following a Supreme Court order passed on April 10 this year, the district administration refused to consider allowing a 'civil and structural safety integrity assessment study' to be conducted on the premises, relocation of spares and equipment, and evacuation of "in-process reverts" lying idle in the premises for the past five years.
In a communication to additional chief secretary of environment, climate change and forest department, collector Senthil Raj said there is no habitation near the plant that could be affected in case of a structural collapse.
However, he did not rule out the risk associated with the heavy machinery and structures lying idle at the plant since May 2018. The reassessment shall be considered after the final verdict of the Supreme Court which is expected to be out in August, the collector suggested.
"Since the plant has been shut for flouting TNPCB norms, permitting to remove the spares, equipment, and raw materials, which have evidentiary value, from the legally entangled copper smelter plant premises, may jeopardize the whole process of rendering justice. The decision to allow evacuation of gypsum, SLF leachate pumping, SLF-4 bund repair, and green belt maintenance, was taken to avoid further environmental degradation before the onset of the monsoon," the collector said in a letter to the additional chief secretary.
Commenting on the development, the collector told reporters that the vendor will have to submit a detailed action plan for the removal of the hazardous materials. The evacuation will be allowed through the side gate, as the front gate of the plant has been sealed. The process will be reviewed by the local management committee every Monday, and a report will be sent to the collector.
Environmentalist Sundar Raj, who is attached to the Poovulagin Nanbargal movement, welcomed the state government's decision to remove the remaining hazardous materials through vendors.
"This is the right decision as the employees of the copper major, which has been indicted for flouting stipulated pollution norms, must not be permitted inside the plant premises for removing the materials. I thank Chief Minister MK Stalin, Environment Minister Siva V Meyyanathan, Thoothukudi MP Kanimozhi, and the district collector for heeding the demands of the public.
Meanwhile, activist Fatima Babu after consulting with the district collector, told reporters that she was sceptical about the decision, since the government has not taken any action against police personnel indicted by the Aruna Jegadeesan committee for gunning down protesters.