When Vedanta was permitted to restart its oxygen facility, the state was desperate for oxygen. That’s not the case anymore — and Sterlite is hardly the most efficient oxygen producer.

File image of Sterlite industry in Thoothukudi.
Voices Opinion Tuesday, July 13, 2021 - 16:57

On July 8, Tamil Nadu health minister Ma Subramanian spoke out to keep Vedanta’s oxygen plant running for six more months citing a continued need for oxygen in Tamil Nadu. This has raised the hackles of civil society groups in the state. Some have warned of demonstrations if production is continued beyond the end-July deadline. Such a course of action may certainly be warranted unless a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases, and a rising oxygen demand, makes a case for pressing all oxygen production units into service like we did throughout the second wave.

On April 23, 2021, when the matter first came up for hearing, the Government of Tamil Nadu submitted that the state was self-sufficient and had enough oxygen for its present needs. On April 23, 13,776 new COVID-19 cases were added. The Health Minister’s statement that the state is in continued need of oxygen even today is absurd. On July 6, only 3,479 cases were added all over the state, and lockdowns have been lifted. While the state should prepare for a third wave, it can do so by keeping this unit on stand-by — and ready-to-produce — and by setting up Pressure Swing Absorption units in hospitals, purchasing adequate quantities of concentrators etc. It does not help to produce oxygen when demand is being taken care of by other more efficient options. Preparing for a third wave does not mean a highly wasteful and inefficient plant is run continuously even when there is no need. Production can be suspended and restarted if needs increase and can no longer be met by cheaper options.

When Vedanta was permitted to restart its oxygen facility, the state – with 15,000 cases added daily — was desperate for oxygen. So oxygen production at any cost was justified. Currently, the state is sailing in calmer waters. Fresh cases in the state are down to less than 3,500 a day. There is no oxygen crisis. However, in district after district, people are complaining of scheduled and unscheduled power cuts. According to some people, Thoothukudi town is witnessing 20 to 25 hour power outages every week.

Oxygen production is power intensive. It takes 700 units of electricity to separate 1 tonne of oxygen from the air, according to Professor Kanchan Chowdhury, an expert in cryogenics and air separation from IIT Kharagpur. And Vedanta’s oxygen plant uses much more electricity — even compared to conventional oxygen plants, because for every tonne of usable, liquid oxygen the Sterlite plant produces, it also produces 9 tonnes of gaseous oxygen that cannot be used; this gaseous oxygen is currently wasted, since the furnace that used to consume the gaseous oxygen has been shut down by a government order from May 2018, for polluting the environment.

It’s not just a question of wasting electricity while the state reels under power outages either. Electricity production in Tamil Nadu relies predominantly on burning coal. Coal-fired thermal power plants, especially in Tamil Nadu, are dangerously polluting. The Tuticorin Thermal Power Station run by TANGEDCO discharges thousands of tonnes of toxic coal ash into the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve damaging a coral reef habitat that is rich in fisheries and biodiversity. Production of electricity harms the local fisheries economy, which is a mainstay of this coastal town.

An average Indian household uses between 100 units and 200 units a month to power all their home needs. Where conventional Air Separation Units run by companies like Inox consume about 700 units of electricity to produce and supply 1 tonne of medical oxygen, Vedanta consumes nine to 10 times that number for the same quantity of usable oxygen, because of the wastage.

Between May 13 (day 1 of production) to July 8, Vedanta produced 14,675 tonnes of oxygen, but supplied only 1,639 tonnes of oxygen for medical use. More than 13,000 tonnes of oxygen was wasted by discharging into the atmosphere, according to Vedanta’s own records. The electricity required for this wastage is about 9,100,000 units (9.1 million units). (13,000 tonnes x 700 units/tonne). Minus the days when the plant was inoperational for maintenance or repairs, Vedanta’s oxygen plant has functioned for over 50 days since May 13 when it began production. That is an average production of about 30 tonnes a day.

If that oxygen was sourced from dedicated medical oxygen units, that would result in a savings of 168,000 units/day (30 x 5600). Producing it at Vedanta’s plant represents a wastage in one day of enough electricity to power 1,700 homes in Tamil Nadu for a month.

Seen environmentally, that is 6,370 tonnes of dirty Indian coal burnt. Indian coal is low on calorific value, is laced with heavy metals and loaded with coal ash – upto 45% of the coal is ash. Keeping the plant running would mean agreeing to discharge nearly 60 tonnes of coal ash into the Gulf of Mannar every day.

Not just that, let’s not forget that this is all about oxygen — essential for breathing. When corona is not hurting you, air pollution still is. Coal-fired thermal power plants are notorious air polluters. Vedanta itself has blamed Thoothukudi’s power plants for pollution in the High Court proceedings.

As Health Minister, Ma Subramanian needs to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Air pollution is a big killer. Power plants are big polluters. If oxygen is the justification for that pollution, producing it in the wasteful manner that Vedanta is doing should be the last resort.

At this point, we are not desperate. It would be advisable to suspend production at this wasteful facility, and redirect that electricity for productive uses. The oxygen unit may be put on stand-by, and kept in a ready-to-use condition for start-up in case a desperate situation arises.

The Health Minister should reconsider his unconditional support to continued oxygen production at Vedanta. Otherwise, it will derail the trust-building exercise undertaken by the Chief Minister to assure the people of Thoothukudi that the state government has no plans of business with Vedanta.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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