December 6, 2018 / 2:15 PM / 11 days ago

Court expected to reopen Vedanta copper smelter but appeal likely: sources

THOOTHUKUDI, India (Reuters) - An Indian court is expected on Friday to follow an experts’ panel recommendation and order the reopening of a copper smelter closed after 13 people died when police fired on environmental protesters in May, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Police stand gurad outside a copper smelter controlled by London-listed Vedanta Resources in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, India, May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sudarshan Varadhan/Files

However, the Vedanta Ltd plant in southern India is unlikely to resume production anytime soon because the Tamil Nadu state government will likely appeal to India’s Supreme Court, the sources said.

State authorities permanently shut down the smelter after police fired on protesters calling for the closure of the plant in the town of Thoothukudi in May.

But a panel of experts set up by the National Green Tribunal, the environmental court, said last week authorities in Tamil Nadu state had failed to comply with procedures before shutting down the smelter.

The panel also said the grounds for a permanent closure were not sufficiently grievous. Authorities had said the plant was polluting the environment.

“The court is likely to give a verdict based on the recommendations of the committee. The state will, however, definitely appeal if the verdict is in favour of the company,” one source said.

Vedanta said it could not comment on the case because the matter is sub judice.

The office of the chief minister for Tamil Nadu did not respond to an email seeking comment.

NO WARNING

Multiple witnesses told Reuters that police gave no warning before firing with live ammunition on the protesters on May 22.

The protesters threw stones and set vehicles on fire as they marched to the district government offices in Thoothukudi, formerly known as Tuticorin, to press for the plant’s closure.

The protesters said the smelter had polluted ground waterand the air around the plant.

Ten people were killed on the day of the protest and another three later died of their wounds, making it one of India’s deadliest environmental protests.

It was not clear if a court order to reopen the smelter would trigger more protests.

Vedanta Ltd is part of the oil-to-metals conglomerateVedanta Resources controlled by Indian businessman Anil Agarwal.

Policemen stand guard ahead of a protest, after at least 13 people were killed when police fired on protesters seeking closure of plant on environmental grounds in town of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, in Chennai, India, May 24, 2018. REUTERS/P.Ravikumar/Files

The smelter is one of the two largest in India and resuming production is crucial to the group as it faces rising costs and the impact of a slowing economy on demand for metals and energy.

Vedanta said on Thursday its copper business accounted for five percent of the company’s overall profit before the smelter was shutdown.

The company expected a loss of $100 million if the copper smelter remained closed for a year, Chairman Anil Agarwal told television channel ET Now in July.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Martin Howell and Darren Schuettler

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