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.
“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.
Ko Samet, which is about 30km from the refineries, is technically part of a national park, although nearly every beach is blanketed with hotels and guesthouses, and back alleys are strewn with trash. Yet considering its proximity to industry, the waters here are remarkably clear.
To Wang, the tourist from China, where waterways are often blacked by pollution, the island appeared pristine. After emerging from a swim, she scanned the beach.
“It’s very beautiful here,” she said.
Additional reporting by Poypiti Amatatham