Disaster area declared as authorities fight to keep oil spill away from island's tourist strip
Authorities yesterday feared the entire tourist island of Koh Samet in Rayong would be affected by Saturday’s oil spill.
The island’s Ao Phrao (Phrao Bay) is being closed for three days to permit a cleanup of spilled crude oil that has washed ashore.
Koh Samet was yesterday declared a marine disaster area, according to Rayong Governor Wichit Chatphaisit, who said action was being taken to prevent the leaked oil from spreading from Ao Phrao to other beaches on the island.
“The spill is definitely having an impact on the environment, but we have not detected any deaths of marine animals yet,” he said.
It is expected to take about 15 days to restore the polluted beach of Ao Phrao, according to Sumet Saithong, chief of the Laem Ya Samet Islands National Park.
He said about 500 officials from the Pollution Control Department; Depart-ment of Environment Quality Promotion; petrochemical firm PTT Global Chemical, from whose pipeline the oil leaked; and those sent by the Rayong provincial governor, were cleaning up oil that had washed ashore.
Film from the floating crude oil has spread over eight kilometres west of Ao Phrao, on the western coast of Samet, and about 400 metres into the bay, he said.
The Stop Global Warming Association yesterday asked the government to demand compensation from PTT for allegedly causing damage to the country’s natural resources and the environment. It would take legal action by itself if the government failed to do so, the association’s representatives said.
Koh Samet, about 3 kilometres off the coast of Rayong, is a popular getaway for Bangkok residents. The island attracts about 1 million visitors a year, mostly on weekends. Known for its quieter scene and serene beach, Ao Phrao is now blackened by waves of oil lapping on the shore.
The leak reportedly struck an offshore pipeline belonging to PTT Global Chemical on Saturday morning, releasing about 50,000 litres of crude oil into the Gulf of Thailand. The pipe is about 20 kilometres off Rayong’s coast. Authorities had contained much of the oil spill by Saturday evening, although portions evaded the floating barriers used to try to contain the spill.
“We closed off Ao Phrao to tourists so authorities can clean up the water and beach,” said Chuchart Oncharoen, the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s director for Rayong. “Ao Phrao is on the west coast of Samet, but most of the island’s hotels and resorts are on the east coast, which has not been affected by the spill,” he said.
Rayong Deputy Governor Supeepat Chongpanish said the immediate priority was to clean the oil from the sand and water, and to make sure the spill didn’t spread to other beaches. “This is a very beautiful, white, sandy beach, so we want to clean up the spill as soon as possible,” he said.
Authorities said it would take some time to assess the environmental damage caused by the spill. However, the tourism industry has already felt some impact.
“The black waves have been rolling in since [Sunday] night and by [yesterday] morning the beach was all tainted with oil,” Kevin Wikul, the assistant front-desk officer of a resort in Ao Phrao, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “We have advised our guests against going near the beach and some have asked for early check-outs.”
Chuchart, TAT’s Rayong director, said: “We’ve had some hotel cancellations on Samet. Whether this will have a long-term impact on the island depends on how quickly PTT cleans the mess up.”
PTT Global Chemical president Bowon Vongsin-udom said yesterday the company would eliminate the oil slicks as soon as possible.
According to the company, hundreds of soldiers are helping in the effort to remove oil from the beach. However, it would take some time before oil slicks on the sand and between stones could be removed, it said.
Energy Minister Pongsak Ruktapong-pisal said the ministry had set up a fact-finding committee headed by PTTGC chairman Prasert Bunsumpun to determine the cause of the oil leak. He said it was the fourth oil spill to have hit Thailand, and the largest in terms of the amount spilled.
Prasert expressed regret over the incident, adding that the company would determine the cause as soon as possible.