Two rescue operations were set in motion last month when a burst pipeline sent tonnes of crude oil gushing into the sea near the idyllic resort island of Ko Samet, Thailand. One operation was cleaning up the spill, the other was defending the image of the country’s tourism industry, crucial to its increasingly fragile economy.
Thai officials immediately played down the environmental impact of the July 27 accident. An executive with PTT, the state-owned oil group, said a day after the spill that “everything was restored to normal.” A day later, when a thick black tide of crude filled a bay of the island, the same executive, Pornthep Butniphant, said the oil would decompose naturally and have “no effect on the environment.”
However, it has taken far more than nature to remove the crude from the shoreline. Military units have spent the past three weeks decontaminating the bay. The soldiers have been joined by dozens of contractors who have been brushing rocks with dishwashing liquid. A leading marine biologist said it would be years before marine life returned to normal in the worst affected area.
Tourism is often seen in Thailand as a buffer when other industries slow down. With the economies of Southeast Asia entering an uncertain period, officials appear to be doing everything they can to sustain the record numbers of visitors in recent years.
In an effort to convince the public that water sports were safe, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, who is known for his theatrics, summoned reporters on Aug. 9 to watch him swim in Phrao Bay, the hardest-hit area.
Six days later, the government’s own pollution control department issued a report saying that the area was too polluted for swimming and that it contained nearly six times the permissible level of potentially cancer-causing hydrocarbons.
Environmentalists bluntly criticized the government for being too hasty in declaring the area safe and giving misleadingly upbeat assessments about the spill.
Ply Pirom, a coordinator with environmental group Greenpeace said that government officials were being pressured to produce data that showed the water was clean. Ply, who specializes in toxic substances, added that the government was too cozy with PTT, which is highly profitable. Thai Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Vichet Kasemthongsri, was previously PTT’s chairman.
“Everything about this issue is suspicious,” Ply said. “They are saying the water is clear, but people are worried about what they don’t see.”
Plodprasop has criticized government data, saying other findings of the pollution control department — that mercury in the water greatly exceeded safe levels — were wrong. Those findings were then rejected by the Thai Cabinet, and the new tests that were ordered showed lower mercury readings.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist who has examined the coastline extensively since the spill, said the government had been “too hasty to claim that everything had returned to normal.”
“Nature takes time to recover,” he said. “The Thai government has been too optimistic — and is not in sync with reality.”
Piamsak Menasveta, a marine pollution expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the chairman of the country’s Independent Commission on Environment and Health, called for verification of the government’s pollution data, particularly of the inconsistent mercury findings.