Representative image: Molten iron flowing out of a blast furnace. Photo: yasin hm/Unsplash
- Vedanta has described itself as the “largest merchant producer of pig iron in India” with a monthly capacity of 80,000 tonnes. It has wanted to scale up since 2018.
- In the villages of Amona and Navelim in Goa, Vedanta has set up three blast furnaces that it maintains are two separate units – to cut costs and evade stricter pollution limits.
- In January 2022, the Union environment ministry cleared the company to ramp up operations in these plants despite an adverse environmental audit.
- But the Union environment ministry has also said that Vedanta should treat the two units as one large unit and thus submit to a tougher EIA.
- In August 2021, after the ministry pulled up Vedanta for allotting only Rs 35 crore for environmental protection, the number shot up to Rs 90.68 crore.
- Vedanta’s case is an illustrative example of why so many companies escape punishment despite violating India’s environmental laws.
New Delhi: India has a dozen laws and regulations to protect the environment, plus an environment ministry, Central and state pollution control boards and a special court for environmental cases, the National Green Tribunal. Yet a billion-dollar company has received a nod to expand its iron manufacturing operations despite failing to control pollution for a decade and submitting inaccurate reports.
Roughly 25 km away from Goa’s capital, Panaji, lie the twin villages of Amona and Navelim. Each of them houses a pig-iron manufacturing plant operated by Vedanta. Towering blast furnaces in the plants fire throughout the day to break down iron ore into crude iron or pig iron, which gets refined into iron.
Vedanta has described itself as the “largest merchant producer of pig iron in India” with a monthly capacity of 80,000 tonnes. It has wanted to scale up since 2018 and put together a Rs-701-crore expansion plan.
In January 2022, the Union environment ministry cleared the company to ramp up operations in these plants despite an adverse environmental audit and reports, documents studied by The Reporters’ Collective reveal.
The ministry’s own inspection report has confirmed hazardous graphite emissions from the plants. The Goa pollution control board has found that the plants have been consistently polluting the environment beyond permissible limits. In the last two years alone, the board and the ministry served two show-cause notices to the plants for causing environmental harm.
Documents also show that the violations and red flags the ministry ignored have been around for over a decade. The presence of graphite particles in the pollutants that escape Vedanta’s plants has been documented since at least 2008 and are harmful to people breathing the air in the plants’ vicinity.
Yet the plants continue to spew graphite 14 years later. Graphite is an allotrope of carbon and can irritate the skin and eyes, cause pulmonary diseases and lead to organ damage.
Vedanata’s case is an illustrative example of why so many companies escape punishment despite violating India’s environmental laws. In the last three years, 39 people have been convicted under environmental laws in India – of the 1,737 criminal cases registered.
The government has also been easing punishments for offenders and has preferred levying financial penalties, encouraging a ‘pay to pollute’ attitude in industry, in the name of development.
“Separate” or “single”
Vedanta ran afoul of the law when it set up its second plant.
The million-rupee1 question, literally, is whether Vedanta’s two plants are a single entity – with one an expansion of the other – or two distinct projects. The question matters because, depending on the answer, Vedanta may have to jump over more stringent thresholds – and spend more – to receive approval for the second plant.
Specifically, a single entity expanding its operations would attract stricter operating conditions.
The distance between the Anoma and the Navelim blast furnaces is 2.5 km according to documents. But Vedanta has also said that there are other allied facilities from the previous plant that are close to the new plant.
In June 2009, the Union environment ministry granted environment clearance to Sesa Industries Ltd. (now Vedanta) to set up a pig-iron plant in Navelim village. It would be close to Vedanata’s pig-iron plant in Amona village, set up in 1992 and which ran on clearances from the Goa pollution control board.
But unlike the Amona plant, Navelim plant had to undergo an environment impact assessment (EIA) first, since the government had notified the rules in 2006. The EIA notification is a subordinate legislation of the Environment Protection Act 1986.
The EIA procedure has elaborate requirements for public consultation, including a public hearing where affected members of communities could object to the project.
But Sesa and the environment ministry maintained that the clearance was for the expansion of the old Amona plant and not for a wholly new project.
“The company took clearance for a new project in Navelim. Since Navelim is in an industrial area, it was exempted from public hearing,” Pravir Fadte, a resident of Amona and a petitioner in court against the clearance, said.
“But later it was called an expansion of the Amona plant. The local communities’ objections regarding pollution were never heard, as the industry continued to grow.”
In the years following the 2009 clearance, Fadte and other affected locals challenged the clearance in two courts – before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took it up in 2016. The petitioners alleged that the government hadn’t accounted for the cumulative effects of the many polluting industries before providing its clearance as well as that the clearance was faulty for evading a public hearing.
In 2017, the NGT ruled that the two units were clearly distinct and didn’t fall within the “ambit and scope of the word ‘expansion’ used in the EIA Notification 2006”. It directed the environment ministry to “examine, if any, additional or further conditions that are required to be imposed on the project proponent for grant of environment clearance…”.
“If this wasn’t an expansion, a fresh clearance procedure and environment impact assessment should have been initiated by the ministry. There should have been a public consultation whereby the cumulative impacts of Vedanta’s activities were kept in front of the affected people,” said Kanchi Kohli, an environment-policy researcher with Centre for Policy Research.
The environment ministry and the Goa state pollution control board inspected the plant in 2018 after the NGT’s verdict. The ministry concluded that the units in Navelim and Amona were connected through overhead conveyors, had the same ownership, financial returns and supply facilities and were thus “de facto one single entity”.
However, official records with the ministry show that Vedanta continued to depict its facilities, the blast furnaces in Navelim and Amona, as separate units while it sought clearances for capacity addition.
On many occasions, while appraising Vedanta’s proposals to expand the Amona plant, the ministry has asked it to integrate its units instead – to determine their environmental impact as a whole in a cumulative assessment.
A cumulative impact assessment is a tough hurdle because it accounts for the upcoming individual project as well as other facilities or industries in the area, before determining the total impact on the environment. So showing its facilities to be separate units could help water down the environmental impact calculus.
Separation could also get a company easier terms of reference – which are guidelines to assess the environmental impact, and which help the ministry assess the project before deliberating on the clearance.
More importantly, the company would have to set aside much less money than it would have had to if the assessment considered its units together, to clean up the environmental mess their factories leave in their wake.
In the case of Vedanta’s expansion: the company first charted a environment management plan of Rs 35 crore. The ministry found this inadequate, so the company increased its cost to mitigate environmental harm to Rs 90.68 crore.
This is how Vedanta tried to circumvent environmental regulations.
In 2016, Vedanta submitted two proposals to the environment ministry for clearance: to change its product and to increase the capacity of its blast furnaces in Amona.
(Changes like these have an impact on the environment that needs to be examined before clearance is granted, so that mitigation measures are also robust.)
In return, the company received two sets of terms of reference from the ministry. Vedanta later sought to amend one of these terms – to increase the capacity of the blast furnace in Navelim as well.
In a meeting of the expert committee in December 2018, the ministry returned this proposal to Vedanta and said it had sent two terms of reference to Vedanta because it had indicated its units to be separate. Now, it asked Vedanta to submit a joint proposal so that it could impose comprehensive terms of reference for the EIA.
“By 2016, the official rules for integrated projects were well understood,” Kohli explained. “If any industry has interconnected facilities, they are supposed to submit an integrated proposal even though the clearances might be issued by different sectoral committees of the ministry.”
Vedanta submitted a new ‘integrated’ proposal after 10 days. In return, it received the terms of reference in March 2019 and had the proposal approved in January this year. For this expansion, the company had conducted a public hearing in March last year – where a majority of those who attended objected.
While evaluating the new “integrated” proposal in August 2021, the ministry’s expert committee excoriated the company for not considering the two units to be a unified entity in its EIA. As a result, the company’s EIA had significantly underestimated the cumulative impact on the environment.
Specifically, the committee said Vedanta had obtained environmental clearance in 2009 but had not “integrated the said units till date” and that Vedanta had furnished “incomplete/inaccurate and inconsistent information” while applying for the clearance.
“EIA report needs to be revised by integrating all the units and a cumulative impact assessment needs to be carried out,” the committee concluded.
The ministry also pointed out that Vedanta’s plan to mitigate environmental harm was only for Rs 35 crore – a mere 5% of its total project value, Rs 701 crore. (Vedanta subsequently increased this to Rs 90.68 crore when it received the clearance.)
Under the EIA Notification 2006, submission of misleading information is sufficient grounds for the ministry to reject a proposal and even cancel a clearance provided on the basis of that information. But on this occasion, the ministry gave Vedanta a rap on the knuckles, and repeated that the company should integrate its facilities and undertake a cumulative impact assessment.
However, because Vedanta had conducted the public hearing earlier, in March 2021, it decided it wouldn’t present the revised impact assessment before the affected communities, for their objections.
“In many cases, the public consultations happen for a different environment impact assessment report,” Kohli said. “So the real project is never in front of the people who face the impact. Same in this case – the revised EIA would not be presented before the people.”
The environment ministry returned Vedanta’s file not just because the company didn’t conduct a proper impact assessment, looking at its factories as a whole. The ministry’s expert committee also possessed the Goa pollution control board’s report on Vedanta’s compliance with pollution norms – i.e. whether Vedanta had been fulfilling preexisting conditions to protect the environment.
This report listed a panoply of violations, some of which were dire. They included stormwater discharge into nearby water bodies, presence of shiny emission particles on air-quality monitoring equipment, absence of approval from the agency protecting historical sites, no secondary emission control, missing black-topped roads for transportation and no green belt.
The ministry returned Vedanta’s proposal and issued a show-cause notice to them in August last year, giving the company an opportunity to respond to the issues the report raised.
Then, in October 2021, the ministry’s Integrated Regional Office (IRO) in Bengaluru along with the Goa pollution control board inspected the plants and absolved Vedanta.
The inspection report said Vedanta’s compliance was “satisfactory” in spite of the major violations listed in the pollution control earlier still having been unresolved. Graphite particles were still snowing down in nearby areas, roads weren’t black-topped and the disposal and/or utilisation of blast furnace slag, a waste product scooped from the top of liquid iron in a blast furnace, left much to be desired.
The ministry also gave Vedanta more time to comply.
After addressing the ministry’s concerns, Vedanta applied again with a new report in December 2021. Based on this report and the company’s responses, the expert committee recommended Vedanta’s fresh proposal in December 2021 to the ministry for clearance. The ministry also revoked its show-cause notice.
However, file notings of the ministry show that ministry officials disregarded the Goa pollution control board’s report. The reason: the report was based on an inspection held three years prior in 2018. The officials said the company “could have possibly” complied with the conditions in these three years – by the time of the inspection by the IRO and the state pollution control board.
In the process, the officials ignored reports of obvious pollution and the findings of an environmental audit by the board in August 2021. The audit committee included J.S. Kamyotra, a member of the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee.
The audit flagged that the air pollution control devices needed upgradation and that the devices’ performance evaluation – by M/s Gadark Laboratories – was incomplete. The audit report added that the evaluation report “seems to have been prepared for the sake of compliance”.
The audit also revealed problems with the treatment of storm-water discharge, insufficient measures to control fugitive emissions and how Vedanta reported and collected data to show compliance with environment norms. The IRO inspection – which found Vedanta’s compliance to be “satisfactory” – hadn’t raised some of these issues.
The residents mentioned this decision, to ignore the audit report, in their appeal filed before the NGT in May against the clearance granted to Vedanta in January.
“The ministry should have not ignored this audit, since one of its members was a part of it, in an official capacity. They are supposed to consider every information at their disposal before granting a clearance,” Kohli said.
The Reporters’ Collective sent detailed questionnaires to the environment ministry and representatives of Vedanta. The office of the environment minister forwarded our query to other officials but we are yet to receive a response. We also await replies from Vedanta. We will update the article as and when we hear from them.
Vedanta has been allowed to operate and expand despite grave concerns about pollution – especially graphite emissions, which persisted for more than a decade now. Vedanta also hadn’t done anything about them until it was granted extra time in January this year – with a March 2022 deadline to check graphite emissions.
In an ‘interim study on ambient air quality’, the Goa pollution control board found in February and March 2020 that the pollutants PM10 and PM2.5 in the Amona plant’s vicinity exceeded permissible limits. These are well-known to be harmful to the respiratory system.
In April 2020, a resident complained of a “dangerous smell” while graphite particles settled on rooftops and tree leaves in the area surrounding the two units. The pollution control board conducted an inspection in May 2020 at six sites close to the units and found an alarming presence of “shiny particles” – fugitive graphite emissions from Vedanta’s operations – in five of those locations.
Rewind 14 years: Following a petition filed in the Bombay high court at Goa, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) conducted a rapid EIA on graphite emissions and its consequences for human health. This report was published in December 2008.
The court also concluded that Sesa Industries’ activities were responsible for the graphite pollution. It ordered that the company implement NEERI’s recommendations and asked the board to continuously monitor air quality and graphite pollution in the area.
Fast-forward 14 years, and little has changed.
“Vedanta has failed to check the problem of pollution. It has also not implemented NEERI’s recommendations to check pollution,” Pravir Fadte, the Amona resident, said. He filed a ‘contempt of court’ case at the same high court in 2017 but it has been pending since.
“The shiny graphite particles settle in the wells, kitchens, fields,” he recounted. “Many people here suffer from respiratory issues like asthma and lung cancer, and doctors say the illness is caused by Vedanta’s operations.”
The Collective wasn’t able to independently verify if Vedanta’s units were responsible for the health issues.
The Goa pollution control board inspected the area surrounding the two units once again when the contempt case was being heard, and reported “shiny particles” in, among other places, public wells. The Zonal Agriculture Office conducted yet another inspection in June 2022 and observed shiny particles in fields that it said could be responsible for the crops’ lower yield.
The local community vehemently opposed the expansion of Vedanta in the public hearing held in March last year. Vedanta had failed to take them into account when the environment ministry pored over its EIA report in August last year.
The problems caused by Vedanta have troubled them for over a decade. But instead of Vedanta, the people will be the ones to face repercussions – and more strongly as the company expands its operations in the villages.
Tapasya is a member of the Reporters’ Collective.
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