BANGKOK, Thailand, August 1, 2013 (ENS) – Crude oil that spilled from a pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday has blackened the majority of coral reefs near Koh Samet island’s Ao Phrao Beach and has spread to smaller islands nearby, according to local officials.
Around 50,000 liters (420 barrels) of crude oil spilled into the sea from a pipeline unloading an oil tanker around 20 kilometers (12 miles) off the coast of Rayong province and 230 km (140 miles) southeast of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Ao Phrao Beach, famous for its white sand and clear water, was blanketed by the black oily mess.
Sumet Saithong, chief of Khao Laem Ya-Mu Ko Samet National Park, said divers and marine biologists who inspected the reefs near Ao Phrao Beach report that over 70 percent of the corals are blackened, covered by remains of the crude oil after the use of chemical dispersants.
Saithong told the National News Service of Thailand that he has lodged a complaint with local police over the environmental damages caused by the oil spill.
Pipeline operator PTT Global Chemical Pcl, part of state-controlled PTT Pcl, Thailand’s biggest energy firm, apologized and said the spill will be cleaned up by this weekend.
But Rayong province’s Marine and Coastal Resources Director Puchong Saritdeechaikul said Wednesday, “There’s no way it will be finished by that time.”
The director says his team has detected an oil sheen that had spread to smaller isles off Samet’s eastern shore.
On Monday, Thai Royal Navy helicopters surveyed the spill and discovered that it has diverged into two flows, encircling Samet island. Observers said some of the oil was being swept closer to the Rayong coast.
In Bangkok, Thai government spokesman Pakdiharn Himathongkham said after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the Ministries of Energy, Transport, Interior and Natural Resources and Environment have been directed to coordinate with state-owned refinery PTT Public Company Limited to conduct the clean-up operation.
Eleven ships and several aircraft are assisting with the cleanup, along with about 600 soldiers, plus about 100 volunteers and workers from PTTGC. Containment booms have been placed around the spill and on the beach, and the company has deployed a high pressure cleaner to the oil slick on the rocks. The company has gathered the oily debris and transferred it to a refinery for further treating.
The small resort island each year attracts about one million foreign and domestic tourists, but Koh Samet’s many tourism operators have been hurt by the spill. Some are seeing a 50 percent drop in dive tour bookings because one of the most popular diving sites located next to Ao Phrao beach has been affected by the oil spill.
Tourists have been relocated to other destinations. Still, the Tourism Council of Thailand has estimated that Koh Samet island will lose around 100 million baht (US$3.2 million) in tourism revenue due to the spill, the “Bangkok Post” reported today.
Coastal fishermen in Rayong province also are affected by the oil spill, which hit the island on Sunday.
Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn said on Wednesday that the sea around Ao Phrao was clear again. Although oil stains were still visible on some of the rocks, the minister claimed that the beach would return to its beautiful state within two days.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong admitted that the oil spill in Rayong province has affected tourism. But he downplayed the accident saying it would not damage the overall image of Thai tourism since the oil spill situation was not deemed critical.
Meanwhile, 470 km to the south across the Gulf of Thailand, the tourist association on another resort island is worried about planned oil drilling. The Koh Samui Tourist Association has expressed concern over possible problems for visitors to the island in Surat Thani province after new oil drilling schemes were floated for a section of the Gulf of Thailand near the island.
Thousands of concerned locals, expatriates and tourists on the island demonstrated on the main ring road around Samui on Wednesday in opposition to drilling for oil in the Gulf of Thailand by NuCoastal (Thailand), a wholly owned subsidiary of London-based Coastal Energy Company, and other petroleum companies.
The Koh Samui Tourist Association is considering filing a complaint with the Thai Parliament’s House Committee on Tourism and Environment.
Greenpeace is calling on the Thai government to review its energy policy and to put an end to oil drilling and exploration in the Gulf of Thailand.