Fri, Aug 30, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Oil spills threaten the environment and tourism in Thailand

Environmental groups are accusing Thai politicians of protecting the tourism industry by not fully disclosing the damage done by an oil spill last month

By Thomas Fuller  /  NY Times News Service, KO SAMET, Thailand

“I am confident that there are some mistakes,” he said in an interview.

Hotels have reported cancellations since the spill, especially among Western Europeans and weekend visitors from Bangkok, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the port that connects Ko Samet with the mainland.

However, the beaches are far from empty. A dozen tourists interviewed on the eastern side of the island, which was not directly affected by the spill, said they were unaware it had occurred.

“I don’t know anything about this,” said Wang Zhaoyang, a university student from Xian, China, visiting with her family. “If I knew before I came, I might have reconsidered.”

Chinese and Russian tourists continue to arrive in large groups, tour operators say.

“We would be in real trouble without the Chinese,” said Sanya Boonyarit, a speedboat pilot who ferries tourists to the island.

The director of Thailand’s pollution control department, Wichean Jungrungrueng, told Thai news outlets on Aug. 22 that beaches on the eastern side of the island were safe for swimming, but that Phrao Bay still contained levels surpassing acceptable limits of total petroleum hydrocarbons, the potentially harmful chemicals found in crude oil.

The PTT official in charge of the cleanup, Kun Patumraj, an executive vice president for engineering and maintenance, predicted that the affected area would be ready to receive tourists for the high season, which begins in November. He spoke in an interview on a beach where workers were flushing out small brown globules of oil from nearby rocks, causing a faint smell of crude to waft through the air.

The company is carrying out regular tests of sand and water in the area affected by the spill, but Kun acknowledged a trust deficit.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t believe us.”

Ply said the spill had highlighted a broader and longer-term question for Thailand: the sustainability of pristine beaches so close to industrial zones. Foreign visitors often envision Thailand as a country of rice paddies and beach resorts, but the country is also a regional industrial powerhouse, with the largest car industry in Southeast Asia and thousands of factories making a variety of products like computer hard drives and chemicals.

At dusk on Ko Samet, tourists flock to a spot above a stretch of rocky shoreline on the island, where they watch the sunset. From the same spot in the evenings, a visitor can see twinkling lights and gas flares in the distance — a petrochemical complex on the mainland known as Map Ta Phut. The oil that spilled into the Gulf of Thailand last month, which a government committee says amounted to 54,000 liters, was bound for a refinery in the industrial zone.

A lawsuit by residents four years ago in Map Ta Phut temporarily stopped expansion of the refineries because of environmental concerns. Government studies have shown that at least eight types of cancer among Thais were highest in Rayong Province, where Map Ta Phut and other industrial zones are.

Piamsak, the maritime pollution expert, said that regulations were lax and that the government did not have contingency plans to deal with oil and chemical spills. Critics say that PTT was ill prepared for last month’s accident. The company’s largest boom, the tubular barriers used to contain spills, was only 200m long, inadequate for a spill that spanned about 2km.

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