In a relief to Vedanta, the Supreme Court on Monday stayed the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) last month’s order that stalled operations of its mining plant at Dharbandora in Goa for lack of mandatory environmental clearance. A Bench led by Justice LN Rao, while staying the NGT’s March 4 order, also sought response from Goa Foundation, an NGO, which had challenged the operations of Vedanta’s plant located at Codli Village without having the requisite green clearance. The plant was allegedly operating only on the strength of Consent to Operate (CTO) granted by the Goa State Pollution Control Board in September 2019.
Though the NGT had accepted the position that the plants predate the EIA Notification 2006, it pegs its judgement solely on the “recommencement” after a break-in 2019, which can never fall in the category of a new plant or modernisation or expansion with the addition of capacity or change of product mix, Vedanta stated in its appeal before the SC. The company further contended that the NGT failed to consider that a beneficiation plant does not operate perennially in the absence of raw material being available for processing. It submitted that NGT could not have directed the plant’s closure only for having halted operations in 2018 and resumed after a gap in 2019.
Mining leases were cancelled by the apex court in 2018, but the ore became available in 2018 when Vedanta purchased ore in an e-auction held by the Goa government, senior counsel Harish Salve and counsel Ankur Saigal appearing for Vedanta, argued. “Recommencement after a break itself does not satisfy any of the triggers for the requirement of an EC under the EIA notification 2016. Increase in capacity, change in product mix or setting up of a new plant also does not increase the pollution load,” they argued.
The NGT had rejected Vedanta’s plea that its beneficiation plants in Villages Amona and Navelim, Goa, were established in 1979 and, therefore, did not require an environmental clearance under the 1994 and 2006 notifications that bought beneficiation plants within their ambit. Besides, the tribunal had also held that the CTO granted by the state pollution control board for the company’s beneficiation plant and the consequent recommencement of operations, which was stopped on account of non-availability of ore since 2018, was impermissible in law as Vedanta should have obtained an EC before “recommencement”.
The tribunal has also directed “the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Goa State Pollution Control Board to take further remedial action by this finding to enforce the rule of law.” The green tribunal said such recommencement of plant in 2019 required grant of environmental clearance. “The contention that when the plant was initially set up in 1997, the requirement of notification was not applicable is not sufficient to hold that environmental clearance is not required even after the plant started at a different location,” the NGT said.