Is Sterlite The Biggest Polluter In Thoothukudi? Here Are Two Views
Over the weekend, a video shared by Lets Make Engineering Simple (LMES) went viral on the internet. The video claims to talk about air and water pollution in Thoothukudi. They said that in the five day visit to the place, they tested water samples collected from places in and around Sterlite Industries and came to the conclusion that Sterlite is not the only polluter.
SPIC, TAC and VV MInerals (previously Kilburn Chemicals) are major contributors to the pollution and Sterlite is the only industry facing the brunt of the people. It further talks about environmental activists Nityanand Jayaraman and Fatima Babu, who are allegedly conveniently ignoring these industries and only focusing on Sterlite.
Nityanand Jayaraman posted on his Facebook wall a rebuttal to the video:
Dear Let’s Make Engineering Simple:
Your popular video on Sterlite makes the following points:
- That companies like SPIC, TAC and VV Minerals are the major polluters, and Sterlite is the best of the lot.
- That NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) found that it was Kilburn Chemicals that was responsible for groundwater contamination in the area.
- That I was part of a committee that inspected Kilburn Chemicals in 2011 and made the above finding of groundwater contamination.
- That my/Fatima Babu’s motives are suspect as, according to you, we have failed to speak up about pollution by VV Minerals.
- That I/Fatima Babu sit in air-conditioned rooms, instigate people to action, and watch while they get beaten and killed by police bullets.
Your conclusions are based on:
- a) a visit to a waste dump yard near Sterlite and VV Minerals that contained acidic effluents, and samples collected from here.
- b) what you saw and experienced near SPIC/TAC
- c) a guided tour through Sterlite’s factory hosted by Sterlite management.
- d) your own impressions about me and Fatima Babu, whom you have neither met nor spoken to.
Here are my responses to the points made in your video. But first, some clarifications:
I have never visited Kilburn Chemicals, not in 2011 not ever. As an independent media person, you have an obligation to base your commentary on verifiable facts. Please let me know the basis of your claim.
I do not sit in an air-conditioned room. I do not watch while people get beaten and killed by police bullets. For a person who claims to believe in fairness and extends this fair treatment to see Sterlite’s side of the story, I am curious why you would not extend the same courtesy to me or Fatima before suggesting that we have been paid off by Mr Vaikundarajan.
- IS STERLITE THE ONLY POLLUTION-INTENSIVE INDUSTRY IN THOOTHUKUDI?
No. Of the many pollution-intensive companies, Sterlite is among only a handful of companies that can be categorised as Large, Red Category, Hazardous Industries. The two thermal power plants, SPIC and DCW are the others. VV Titanium (earlier Kilburn) is also a Red Category industry, but far smaller than Sterlite, SPIC or DCW.
In a poorly regulated state like Tamil Nadu, it is cheaper to violate environmental laws than it is to follow it. No company in its right mind will run its factory in compliance with regulations. That said, the capacity of polluting companies to do harm also depends on the size of the factories and the extent of the violations by the various factories.
- WHY IS THE CURRENT CAMPAIGN ONLY ABOUT STERLITE AND NOT ABOUT VV MINERALS?
In your video, you declare that SPIC is a major source of air pollution. To do this, you relied on what you saw – smoke from SPIC’s chimney stacks — and what you experienced in 20 seconds as you were exposed to the toxic air when you stepped out of your vehicle to take a water sample.
That brief encounter with the air was sufficient to allow your common sense to appreciate the intensity of the problem faced by local people and identify SPIC as the cause of the problem.
Even people without engineering degrees have common sense. In exactly the same way – by seeing, breathing and experiencing discomfort — as you came to a conclusion about SPIC, the people living around Sterlite have zeroed in on Sterlite’s pollution as their environmental problem. If a 20-second exposure to toxic air from SPIC can give you a day-long headache, wouldn’t you agree that 22 years of exposure to toxic air from Sterlite would cause cancer?
VV Titanium’s pollution cannot be excused. But if you want to know why people focus on Sterlite and not on VV, that may be because of how they view the two in terms of magnitudes of pollution.
Sterlite is seen to place a higher environmental burden than VV Titanium’s factory.
VV Titanium operates out of an 8.53 hectare (21 acres) campus. Sterlite occupies a 102.4 hectare (253 acres) plot.
VV Titanium’s entire factory complex can be accommodated inside the Sterlite’s gypsum dump.
Sterlite’s water requirement is 10 million litres per day. VV Titanium has a daily requirement of 1.2 million litres.
- DOES THIS MEAN THAT I DO NOT KNOW OR CARE ABOUT THE POLLUTION BY VV MINERALS?
Absolutely not. I have written on many occasions that the real villain in Tamil Nadu’s environmental crime drama is not Sterlite, VV Titanium, SPIC or TAC. The real villain is the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, which allows these companies to break the law and get away with it. The blame also lies with the Governments of Tamil Nadu and India which have stopped responding to people’s just demands and have become contractors for their corporate masters.
People choose and pick their battles based on what they think is deserving of their attention, or who is the adversary that is causing the most damage. I pick my battles, much as you do yours. Of the many, many issues that there are to make a youtube video of, you have chosen to make a video defending Sterlite and exposing the pollution of VV Titanium. While I disagree with your defence of Sterlite for reasons stated below, I am heartened and thankful that you and your young team are taking on the campaign against VV Titanium’s pollution. Do let me and the thousands of your followers know how you propose to take this campaign forward, and how we can help.
- YOU SAY THAT YOU VISITED STERLITE AND “ASSESSED THEIR SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT AND LIQUID WASTE MANAGEMENT PRACTICES” I have a few questions:
- a) Do you know what the required pollution mitigation infrastructure for a 400,000 tonne per annum copper smelter is?
- b) You had to risk your life to go to VV Titanium’s waste dump to take samples. But in your guided tour of Sterlite, you had an eager and friendly management that was hosting you. Did you take samples of their solid waste, ETP sludge, gypsum waste etc? In order to compare, you need at least two sets of samples.
- c) What did you think about their greenbelt or the design of their chimney stacks?
If you have indeed made these assessments, then it would have been useful education for your viewers to have heard from you about these. After all, as your title “மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு” suggests wisdom lies in seeking out the truth, not just in taking as true what someone says.
If you have not made these assessments, then as a scientifically-inclined engineer, I am sure you will agree that your conclusion that Sterlite is better than others or that others are worse than Sterlite is without basis.
Guided tours of the kind that you were taken on are meant to present the best face of the company. No company in its right mind is going to let you see their lapses. Your conclusions on VV Titanium also would have been favourable if Mr Vaikundarajan had taken you on a guided tour of his company, instead of a villager who knew the company’s toxic secrets.
- HERE’S WHY I THINK YOUR ASSESSMENT OF STERLITE’S ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT IS WRONG
Sterlite does not have adequate land to operate its factory: In 2007, Sterlite obtained an Environmental Clearance for expanding its factory stating it had the required 172 hectares, including 89 hectares to accommodate the pollution control infrastructure needed to mitigate the increased pollution load. That was and is a lie: The company has only 102.4 hectares. A factory site that was inadequate for even a 40,000 tonne per year smelter has been used to build 10 times larger smelter. Because it does not have 172 hectares, it does not have the 65 hectares required for proper solid waste storage.
Sterlite’s greenbelt is inadequate: Greenbelts – or afforested zones surrounding polluting factories — are important pollution mitigation interventions. According to the Ministry of Environment’s guidelines, large, Red Category, Hazardous industries are required to develop a greenbelt of minimum 500-metre width. In 1995, TNPCB issued a condition requiring Sterlite to develop a 250-metre wide greenbelt. Sterlite “convinced” TNPCB to amend that requirement to 25 metres arguing that it did not have land for greenbelt. Even this pathetically inadequate greenbelt requirement has not been complied with. The 2007 Environmental Clearance issued to Sterlite required the company to develop a greenbelt of adequate width over 43 hectares of their total plot of 172 hectares. As mentioned earlier, Sterlite does not have the required 172 hectares. So the question of having a greenbelt of 43 ha does not arise.
Sterlite’s solid waste management is not as per law: Sterlite said it will earmark at least 65 hectares for solid waste storage out of the 172 hectares it claimed to have for expansion. But Sterlite neither has 172 hectares, nor the 65 hectares for solid waste.
Sterlite’s Chimney Stacks are under-designed: The minimum height of the chimney stack for copper smelters is prescribed under rules issued by Central Pollution Control Board. As per these rules, the chimney stack attached to Sterlite’s smelter in 1996 when production capacity was limited to 40,000 tonnes/year was to have been 70 metres. However, Sterlite operated its smelter with a 60-metre stack. Today, the production capacity has expanded ten-fold to 400,000 tonnes. The smelter operates with the same 60-metre stack. Under-designed stacks can result in ineffective dispersion of air pollutants. This will lead to higher than safe levels of air pollutants – in this case, SO2, arsenic, fluoride etc – building up at ground level in the vicinity of the plant.
- HAS STERLITE’S OPERATIONS LED TO GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION?
Your video seems to suggest that Kilburn (VV Titanium) is solely responsible for groundwater contamination. Here’s what the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s submission to the Appellate Authority where Sterlite’s appeal against TNPCB’s closure order is pending:
“. . .the test report of the groundwater sample taken on 28.03.2018 revealed that the hardness in water has risen up leaving it unfit for portability and the same has been communicated to the appellant. . .
“In this regard, it is respectfully submitted that hardness in groundwater is mainly caused due to the presence of the chlorides, nitrates, carbonates and sulphates of calcium and magnesium. “Gypsum” generated by the Appellant, which is a soft sulphate mineral composed of calcium sulphate dehydrate appears to have contributed to the increase in the level of hardness in groundwater as evident from the report dated 05.04.2018, thus leaving it unfit for domestic use in areas within and surrounding the unit.”
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