By Pongphon Sarnsamak
Even though the oil spill on Koh Samet has been almost removed from Ao Phrao beach, there is a long road before the marine ecosystem and local tourism industries, which make Bt16 billion from 5.5 million visitors a year, recover.
Monitoring the impact of the spill on marine life such as coral reef, seagrass or even plankton on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis needs to start as soon as possible, to estimate the damage on the marine ecosystem.
It’s not only possible changes in the marine life, but the quality of seawater, as well as the level of oil-related hazardous substances in marine life in affected areas and nearby sites that must be watched closely to ensure that seafood caught in the area are safe.
Meanwhile, building confidence among domestic and international visitors is also a priority for related agencies. This is to help not only luxury resort owners but also small and medium-sized business owners, such as street somtam (papaya salad) vendors, seafood restaurant owners, and even masseurs hurt by news about the oil spill on the western side of the island.
At least 50 tonnes of crude oil leaked from a pipeline off Rayong into the Gulf of Thailand on July 27. This oil drifted to Koh Samet the following day.
Measures taken in response to the spill were stepped up after the oil reached Ao Phrao on the night of July 28, nine days ago.
An emergency response team from PTT Global Chemical Plc (PTTGC) arrived shortly after.
As this was an emergency, thousands of personnel from the Royal Thai Navy and PTTGC workers were deployed to help the cleanup mission. But they were not informed about the dangers of crude oil that spread in the sea and onshore at Samet.
However, workers were given white biohazard suits, face masks, gloves, and boots to protect them from toxic chemicals that had covered the white sands.
Meanwhile, the official story from PTT’s top executives was revealed to the public on the fourth day after the incident, following an official decision to talk with those affected by the crisis.
Questions remain, however, about whether the state oil and gas giant used an excessive amount of chemical dispersant to split up the oil as it drifted away from the site.
PTTGC said it used over 32,000 litres to disperse the 50 tonnes of crude oil but Pollution Control Department officials said they had allowed PTTGC to use only 5,000 litres. And, there is no penalty for excessive use of oil dispersant.
To investigate the cause of accident, Energy Minister Pongsak Ruktapong-paisal set up a fact-finding committee last week led by Khunying Thongtip Ratanarat, a former executive director of the Petroleum Institute of Thailand. The results of the panel’s inquiries are expected to be released this week.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has also set up a committee led by permanent secretary Chote Trachu to monitor the short- and long-term impacts from imports of oil spilt in the marine ecosystem, and to help estimate the cost of such leaks.
This committee has Pollution Control and Marine and Coastal Resources officials who will oversee the monitoring of the quality of seawater in the Gulf. Plus officials from the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Department and Coastal Resources Department will study marine life, coral and beach ecosystems, as well as seagrass in the Gulf with experts from Chulalongkorn University and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Lat Krabang. The Fisheries Department will try to assess the effect on marine life.
Meanwhile, the Marine Department and National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Department have filed a complaint about the leak and notified the police.
Sakanan Plathong, from Prince of Songkla University’s Marine Biology Division, warned that even if chemical substances in oil were dispersed and could not be seen, they still exist in the sea. This meant frequent monitoring would be needed to see the real impact on marine life. So, the process to assess the real damage could take three to five years till we find out what has really happened.