Sunday, December 01, 2013

Green Tribunal goes soft on Ambuja Cement, says pollution board made "covert attempt to subvert legal process"

By Our Representative
Even as taking serious note of a complaint by 44 agriculturists of Kodinar against the Gujarat Ambuja Cement Ltd’s south Saurashtra plant about an accident on May 1, 2011, which allegedly led to “poisonous dust and powder” spreading to the nearby areas, the National Greens Tribunal (NTB) has rejected the applicants’ claim for compensation, saying it was being "disposed of". The agriculturists, who filed their complaint against one of the biggest cement plants of India last year, had said that the “accident was so severe that poisonous gas, cement dust had spread over the nearby area and destroyed all the agricultural products grown in the nearby vicinity of the cement company.”
While the agriculturists said that “the chemicals used in the cement company were also spread over in the nearby areas and agriculture lands of the farmers and hence most of the agricultural products, trees, grains and standing crops burnt away”, the NGT insisted, “Though there are certain claims and photographs of dust accumulated on various agricultural plants in applicants farms, in the absence of technical data like its composition and also, non-availability of records and reports substantiating the fact that this dust is a fall out of the industrial emissions of the Gujarat Ambuja, the NTG is not inclined to accept any claim for compensation.”
Even as “disposing of” the claim for compensation, the NTG imposed fine on the Ambuja Cement and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), implying that they were not serious enough about the accident. The NTG ruled in favour of imposing an “exemplary cost of Rs 1 lakh” on the GPCB, “for non-filing of adequate response and not assisting the NTG for proper and effective adjudication of the matter.” It also imposed Rs 5 lakh on the Ambuja Cement “for not immediately informing about the accident and also, the release of pollutants, to the concerned regulators including the GPCB and district administration.”
Interestingly, the NTG – a special fast-track court for expeditious disposal of the cases pertaining to environmental issues established under the Constitution – gave the judgment even as it found that the Regional Officer of the GPCB gave wrong directions to the agriculturists to “settle claims outside without doing any spade work.” Worse, the officer’s affidavit on the issue failed to “cover various aspects and issues raised in the main petition, including status of industry, status of pollution control systems, details of compliance, and complaints and compensation issues.”
The NGT recalled that, under directions of the High Court of Gujarat, in the Special Civil Application No 7125 of 2010, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) carried out “detailed inspection-cum-monitoring of the surrounding area of the plant”, and in its report in November 2011 “has raised several areas of concern, particularly the ground water pollution which has been linked to the leachate from improper storage of the chemical gypsum in the industry.”
While the CPCB found that the concentration of the metals (copper, iron, zinc, magnesium and lead) for selective wells, including the applicants’ wells, were found to be “within permissible limit”, at the same time it highlighted “various discrepancies and mention that the gypsum storage is not proper.”
In fact, the NGT said, “the CPCB observed that the part of the pipeline provided for transferring surface runoff leachate to day tank is underground and could not be traced.” The CPCB also reported “observation of deposition of dust on mango trees/banana trees.” It added, “One of the important aspects of the CPCB report is that the industry is using liquid AFR which is stored near an open storage area towards the south boundary of the plant.”
The NTG underlined, despite these concerns by the CPCB, “the affidavit of the Regional Officer, GPCB, does not mention any of these aspects and is also silent on compliance and present status of various issues and recommendations made in the CPCB report.”
In fact, NGT said, the GPCB in this instance failed to take a “proper, scientific and as per law.” This happened despite the fact that the GPCB is “a technical organization specially created under the statute was expected to help the NGT with a scientific data on the nature of emissions, chemical composition of such emissions, assessment of area where the dust could be dispersed, considering the local meteorological conditions and also, adequacy of air pollution control system.”
However, the NTG emphasized, “There is no information or documents which have been placed on record by the GPCB in this regard.” In this context, it said, the action of the Regional Officer, GPCB, to go in for a “mutually settle the compensation” was “bad in law and not within jurisdiction of the GPCB, and can be termed as a covert attempt to subvert the legal process.”
Asking the GPCB to submit its compliance report shall be submitted to the NGT within six months, it said, “We have duly considered written statement received by post, sent on behalf of the applicants. However, once it is found that there is no tangible material to hold that the crops of the applicants were impacted due to accidents in question, it is difficult to consider the arguments, particularly based upon environmental principles enumerated in the submission.”
Yet, showing some sympathy towards the agriculturists, it added, the district collector or any other authority could, if they liked, could “consider claims of the applicants, if any, in case the independent enquiry substantiates any part of the claim on the basis of the proof given by them or as a result of the enquiry made by the authority.”

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