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Environmental Justice Served at the Cost of Sterlite Copper’s Defeat

Environmental issues are a human rights issue.

No matter where you stand on the scale of being a treehugger, I have faith that you will recognize when a crime against humanity writes itself and in cases such as these, the environment is merely a victim too, so we need to fight this fight together.

I want to use the example of Sterlite Copper to further drive this point home.

You see, Sterlite Copper is a copper smelting process plant operating out of Tamil Nadu, India. In fact, Sterlite was on its way to becoming the world’s largest single location copper smelter in an urban area, if their expansion plans went through (it didn’t). They’ve recently gained a lot of media attention due to the company’s neglect on not only the environment but also those living in the surrounding areas of its process plant. Sterlite has a history of red flags and I am starting to wonder that maybe we need stronger legislation and intervention to prevent cases such as these from re-occurring.

Sterlite used to operate in Maharashtra in the early 90s but were chased out following protests from locals. Sterlite is familiar with the face of rejection as they were previously disdained by Gujarat and Goa until Tamil Nadu welcomed their project in 1994. Since then, a slew of complaints from neighbouring businesses and residents were collected for over a decade: headaches, coughing, nausea, breathlessness, respiratory tract infections, wheezing, eye irritation and miscarriages. Though Sterlite denies these claims are related to its plant, it is hard to believe they didn’t contribute to the withering health and environmental conditions of the surrounding area.

Here’s why:

Sulfur dioxide is a gas generated in the copper smelting process, and has been linked to asthma and other lung concerns. In 1997, over 100 women working at a nearby dry flower factory fainted and were even hospitalized for up to five days as a result of a high concentration of SO2. Just weeks later, employees of a station close by to Sterlite reported vomiting and nausea. Rinse and repeat and the year is now 2013 and panic had spread widely in the residential community of Thoothukudi who all shared symptoms of irritation and burning one morning. Further stack testing later proved SO2 levels had shot up to 235% of the permissible levels! The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) also calculated that strong winds from the direction of the plant prove Sterlite to be the culprit and though this was not convincing to everyone (I.e. Sterlite), it should not be entirely dismissed.

Environmental Impacts of Copper Production
Figure 1: Environmental Impacts of Copper Production

In a publication by the U.S. Congress on the Environmental Aspects of Copper Production, it suggests there are potential impacts on surface and groundwater quality during copper production. This is indicated in Figure 1 which identifies prospective contaminants to land, air and water from a copper process plant. The impacts of Sterlite’s leaching are observed by farmers who face barren land as consequences of the chemically tainted land. In addition to health risks, Sterlite’s negligent actions are costing the livelihood of farmers who can no longer grow their crops on unforgiving soil.

Police amidst crowd of protesters surpassing their 100th day.

This is just scratching the surface on the atrocities committed by Sterlite during its presence in Tamil Nadu. The Anti-Sterlite movement recently gained its traction when the company announced its intention to expand their unit and double their production. The backlash caused by this decision is recorded by the hundreds who showed up to (peacefully) protest through means of sit-ins and strikes. In Sterlite’s most recent death toll, 13 lives were claimed (and many more injured) when police opened fire on the crowd of protestors. Their lives were not lost in vain as shortly thereafter, the Government of Tamil Nadu issued permanent closure of the plant.

Though this is a victory twenty years in the making, this experience comes bearing lessons. Despite evidence indicating the deteriorating health of the public, Sterlite continued to operate and grow its production. I cannot help but compare if this were to happen in Canada, Sterlite would be shut down and remedial actions would be administered promptly after evaluations were completed. In fact I can say this with confidence because this did happen.

A sign by a water fountain in town hall during the E.Coli outbreak in Walkerton.

In the spring of 2000, there was an E.Coli outbreak in the water wells in Walkerton, Ontario. Six died due to the lack of standard practices and testing completed by the town’s unqualified utility workers. Corrective actions followed the tragedy which included: identifying the source of contamination, handing over clean-up responsibility to Ontario Clean Water Agency and introducing new policies and legislations.  Since then, there have been no severe incidents of water contamination in wells. The right people were held accountable for their actions and proactive measures were enforced to prevent this incident from repeating itself.

So why did it take over 20 years before Sterlite was shut down? The answer to this may be a bit past my purview but I strongly feel there should have been measures taken earlier on which would have averted the fatal outcomes. I hope to see India take a page from Canada’s book and implement environmental legislation with stricter policies so hazards are recognized as early as possible. I think accountability is key and to ensure this, operating licenses should outline the exact limitations of emissions which must be maintained. In the event these emissions are exceeded, corporations such as Sterlite must pay its fine for its inadvertence. Regular environmental audits in addition to soil and groundwater monitoring and stack testing are just a few solutions which protect the citizens and the environment. In my hope for the state’s future, I want to see agencies such as TNPCB receive more authority to reign over industry compliance requirements.

Protesters make a stand against Sterlite Copper.

Tamil Nadu government failed its own people for letting this persist for as long as it did but the collaborative efforts of the community to uprise and summon against a conglomerate such as Sterlite gives me hope for the sustainable future of the state. It makes me hopeful to hear of the environmental awareness Sterlite has stirred and it paves the way for sustainable development in business practices. This instance not only demands stricter protocols for businesses but it brings attention to unethical practices which are not tolerated by an informed public. The solidarity expressed by Tamil Nadu citizens and its political parties shows we are moving in the right direction. With this said, I am rooting for my home state to develop and progress towards a future which is considerate of the wellbeing of its citizens and the conservation of the environment.


References

Copper: Technology & Competitiveness. (1988). Washington, DC: Congress of the U.S., Office of Technology Assessment. https://www.princeton.edu/~ota/disk2/1988/8808/880810.PDF

N, S. U., & Thomas, M. (2018, May 24). Protests, miscarriages, deaths: Sterlite Copper’s 20 years in Thoothukudi. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1287476/sterlite-coppers-20-years-in-thoothukudi-have-been-marked-by-deaths-miscarriages-and-endless-protests/

A. (2018, June 18). Process of removing chemical leakage at Thoothukudi Sterlite Copper plant begins. Retrieved from http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2018/jun/18/process-of-removing-chemical-leakage-at-thoothukudi-sterlite-copper-plant-begins-1829820.html

Toxic Air Pollution from Copper Smelters Challenged. (2014, April 24). Retrieved from https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2003/toxic-air-pollution-from-copper-smelters-challenged

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Why Saving the Environment is a Lot Like Working on a Group Project

Group assignments, we have all been there, we have all done that. Often times, there is a repetitive pattern of key players we observe from group to group. Now, this is not as radical as it seems but I have broken it down.

1. The task is assigned.

In the case of my example, we are made aware of climate change and all we need to do is save the environment!! Now obviously that is way easier said than done. Though on a serious note, we are encouraged to adapt sustainable lifestyle changes which contributes towards a cleaner, greener future for all. Our instructions tell us we can have a better planet if we are willing to put in the work. These include being more mindful of our waste, can we recycle it? Compost it? Donate it? Reducing our waste can significantly decrease the growth of landfills. How about alternate modes of transportation and choosing public transit, biking or walking to our destination whenever and wherever it is possible. Basically, we have our work cut out for us and it comes down to whether we are willing to do what it takes to complete our task.

2. We meet our group members.

For the purpose of my example, we are going to pretend we are assigned our group members and we did not have a say in who we wanted to work with, because that is the reality of it; We share this planet with billions of other humans, or in this case, our “group members”. With such a large group, it brings immense diversity and conversation. So here is where it might get a little complicated. Bear with me as I dwell into the similarities.

Al Gore - An Inconvenient Truth
“What we take for granted might not be here for our children.” – Al Gore
  • The Group Leader: As with almost every group project there is always that one person who pulls the group together and reminds them of what needs to be done. A project manager, if you will. In relation to climate change and the environment, these individuals can be policy makers, environmental leaders, lobbyists and those who are militant in protecting our planet. For a young teenage Vennila, she found this person in Al Gore after being left speechless in discovering the state of our planet in his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. A little cliche, yes, but it spurred me to further pursue my interest about the planet’s state.
  • The Diligent Worker: Then we have those who care about meeting the end goal because the latter consequence does not seem very appealing. A failing grade or a failing planet, we want neither. For the most part, this demographic are those who are citizens doing their part by making eco-friendly decisions. It’s you, it’s me and it’s our network of individuals who have accepted the challenge posed to us by our planet and doing the needful to prevent global warming from worsening. This is the best time for us to take action because with every procrastinating moment, we are a little more defeated as the global temperatures continue to rise, rainforests being clearcut by the minute and polar ice caps melting at rapid speeds. There is no redeeming all-nighter for this project because the attention and priority it needs is by far one of the most important concerns humanity is fighting at this time.
  • The Slacker: Finally, our least favourite… those in the group who do not care much for the project and contribute next to none. In this particular case, this refers to the climate change deniers. As much as we are made aware of the situation we are in, climate change deniers refuse to accept the reality and turn a blind eye to the issue. However, climate change is a global concern and affects everybody as it knows no boundaries or exceptions. As victims of our own precedents, it is ultimately on us on how we choose to approach this ever growing concern. It starts with raising awareness and educating the public that we should do our due diligence to slowing global warming as inevitable as it may be.

How extremely saddening to see one of the world’s most powerful leaders reveal himself as a climate change denier and actively rescinding environmental regulations. Just days ago, President Trump signed legislation to undo Obama’s Stream Protection Rule which prevented waterways from being exposed to coal waste. However unfortunate this news comes to us, we must remind ourselves that we have to remain persistent in our fight to protecting our planet. Consider this assignment to be one that is ongoing and there is no due date or deadline besides fighting to leave a better planet for generations to follow for as long as we walk this Earth. Our daily actions and decisions mandate the kind of future we want to live in. I hope you are the kind of individual who wishes to see Earth’s prosperity for countless years to follow, with bountiful resources, clean air and water and happy, undisturbed animals. With the technology we are introduced to, we have the potential to live in an A+ planet but it is up to us that we get there. Let’s go, team Earth!

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The One Where She Starts a Blog: Take Two

I am a fool for making recurring payments to maintain a domain I have been inactive on, but that changes today.

Perhaps it is the lingering optimism the New Year bestows on us or perhaps it was the web hosting payment withdrawal on my credit card or perhaps it was both. What remains certain is my newfound vigor to write creatively in my own space. To be completely honest, I am not entirely sure of the kind of dialogue I want to create and post. However, I am sure my preachy ‘save the environment’ spiels will be a constant and as an Environmental Technology student, it would be an injustice if I didn’t.

And with that, I leave you for now. Cheerio, friend.

 

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