Environment clearance to Goa miners indefensible: Centre to SC

The Centre conceded before the Supreme Court that most of the environment clearance certificates were "indefensible".

New Delhi: The Centre on Wednesday conceded before the Supreme Court that most of the environment clearance certificates (ECCs), granted to Goa mining firms during 2005 to 2010, were "indefensible" and action would be taken against private expert bodies that had conducted the environmental impact assessment (EIA) on miners` pleas for ECCs.

The apex court, which is hearing the matter on a day-to-day basis, also took strong note of pleas of mining firms that if the court is going to consider the findings of the Justice MB Shah Commission in its judgement, then they (miners) be also given opportunities to challenge the report.

The Shah panel report had indicted almost all the miners saying illegal extraction of iron ore during last 12 years had caused a loss of Rs 35,000 crore to the state exchequer.

Advancing his arguments for the first time in the case for Ministries of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Mining, Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran said "I may concede that Environment Clearance Certificates (ECCs) were granted considering environmental impact assessment of private experts and most of them (ECCs) are indefensible."

"Which means, now you say that Environment Clearance Certificates (ECCs) are indefensible and the appraisals were done by the private experts body," the bench comprising justices AK Patnaik, SS Nijjar and FM Ibrahim Kalifulla, said and asked Parasaran to apprise it of actions taken on the issue.

While objecting to the submissions of mining firms, the bench said "don`t take a very strong plea, if we decide that the mining should remained stopped, then it will remain so."

"Do not make technical argument that I did not get an opportunity to challenge the Shah Commission report. Mining can remain closed forever as we have power under Articles 32 and 21 of the Constitution," the bench said.

Detailing the procedure of grant of ECCs, Parasaran said first the applications are screened and then the Expert Appraisal Committee (EIA) examines the pleas and related documents before giving reasoned categorical recommendations either for grant or denial of ECCs to mining firms.

At present, the ECCs, granted to Goa miners mostly during 2005-2010, are suspended and the MoEF would take "separate action" against private experts body.

The bench also asked the counsel for MoEF to apprise it of actions taken against mining firms which were operational near national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the state.

Earlier during the day, senior advocate Arvind Datar concluded arguments on behalf of Goa government and said the state be "left alone" to act on the issue as per the law and the Constitution.

"Moreover, for any lapses, we have got National Green Tribunal, the High Court and the Supreme Court and this is the essence of separation of powers," he said.

The state government also said the Lokayukta be allowed to function as the regulatory authority to supervise mining in the state till the time a proper mechanism is put in place.

The lawyer also said status reports can be filed before the Supreme Court.

To the submission that there were laws and rules to regulate mining, the bench said "ultimately, the decision has to be taken by the people who are in government. If the people in the government are not serious, then the rules cannot be implemented."

The bench asked Goa government whether it has taken any action against any individual mining company on the basis of the report of Justice Shah panel.

"We have stopped mining in the state," he said adding for taking action against an individual firm, "legal process" has to be followed and "no action can be taken on the basis of the report of the panel alone".

Earlier, the court had questioned the Centre on grant of ECCs to mining firms involved in extraction of iron ore in Goa.

The bench had also asked the state government to respond as to why there was no regulatory mechanism in place to check illegal iron ore extraction there.

The bench is hearing the PIL filed by the Goa Foundation, an environmental action group, on the illegal mining in Goa.

Earlier, the apex court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) had said that nearly 70 iron ore mines in Goa fall within the prohibited 10 km radius of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and environment clearance certificates of miners must be reviewed.

The CEC had on December 7 last year recommended revocation of environmental clearances granted to 42 iron ore mining leases located near national parks and sanctuaries in the state.

The forest bench had on October 5 last year halted mining operations in all the 90 mines in Goa considering the Justice Shah Commission report that had indicted almost all miners saying illegal extraction of iron ore during the last 12 years had caused a loss of Rs 35,000 crore to the state exchequer.

The court had recently started hearing the PIL after Sesa Goa, a Vedanta group firm and the country`s largest producer and exporter of iron ore in private sector, sought an early decision on the issue.