CHENNAI: Despite the Supreme Court allowing Sterlite to reopen its Tuticorin plant, the copper smelter may not start operations at least until next week when the National Green Tribunal is slated to hear the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)’s March 30 closure order, prompted by a gas leak.

The company had appealed against the order with the Chennai branch of the tribunal. “The hearing in the tribunal is scheduled for April 9. In the meantime, we will also prove our case with the TNPCB and only after that the plant can be reopened,” said a plant official. Tuticorin collector Ashish Kumar said the administration would file its counter before the hearing.

Smelter units are seen as polluters with excessive emission of sulphur dioxide which causes respiratory problems and cardiovascular diseases. The port city is home to several thermal plants and fertiliser companies. “But there are no records of people being treated for respiratory problems due to the gas leak,” a senior government doctor told TOI.

The Sterlite copper smelter has courted controversies for over two decades. Even much before the plant came up, locals, led by MDMK chief Vaiko, held protests against the setting up of the unit since 1988. AIADMK and DMK, too, had initially opposed the unit. It was in 1993 that the then AIADMK regime approved the project and since then successive governments have approved capacity expansion. From an initial capacity of 50,000 tonnes, the unit steadily expanded to touch an output of four lakh tonnes of copper in 2013. Today, the smelter has a workforce of 4,000 employees and provides indirect employment to about 20,000.

A few months after beginning operations in 1997, the plant was temporarily shut after two labourers were hit by a poisonous gas leak. After the SC verdict, the company said in a statement: “Sterlite will continue to work in close association with the state government and other regulatory bodies to maintain the highest standards of health, safety and environment.”

A part of the Vedanta Group, Sterlite Industries is one of the biggest industrial units in Tamil Nadu. “The Tuticorin plant is the first privately-owned copper smelter unit in the country and also the only company which manufactures phosphoric acid,” said a company official.