Beaches on a well-known Thai holiday island have been blackened by an oil spill bringing fears for the impact on the tourist and fishing industries.
Despite frantic efforts by soldiers and volunteers to clean up Koh Samet, 23 kilometres south east of Bangkok, environmentalists fear the spill could be worse than is being officially admitted.
Tens of thousands of litres of crude spilled into the sea about 20 kilometres from the coast last Saturday, as it was being transferred from a tanker to a pipeline supplying a refinery.
“The natural environment of this area will not be the same for many years. This was a beautiful beach. I’m in shock,” said one young male resident.
“I believe that it took too long to contain the situation. This has had a huge effect on the local tourism. In the long run, if we don’t quickly solve this, the tourism industry will suffer,” added Anuchida Chinsiraprapa, Chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce in Rayong province.
Worst hit was the beach at Ao Prao, or Coconut Bay, but tourists elsewhere on the island were leaving.
The beach has been declared a disaster zone.
The operator of the platform where the leak happened, PTT Global Chemical, a subsidiary of Thailand’s state oil company PTT, apologised and said the leak had been plugged and the clean-up was “80 percent” done.
That claim was contested by environmental groups.
“What has happened is far more serious that what PTT said on the first day,” said Ply Pirom, programme manager at Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “We can expect an impact on fisheries and from chemical contamination in the food chain.”
PTT Global Chemical said 50,000 litres of crude oil had leaked into the sea, but some observers fear that is an underestimate.
A senior officer from the Thai navy was quoted on Tuesday as saying the slick could hit the Thai mainland.
“A thick film of oil could reach the continent. It is beginning to head in that direction. It will no doubt be a week before the situation is brought under control,” said Vice-Admiral Roongsak Sereeswad.