Koh Samed: One Month After the Oil Spill

We return to Koh Samed to see if the weekend island escape and its beaches is truly fit to welcome visitors once more.

What Happened

On Jul 27, at 6:30am, off the coast of Rayong, a pipe connecting a tanker to an offshore pipeline owned by PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) broke releasing some 42,000 liters of crude oil into the sea. A plane capable of dumping dispersant chemicals was brought in from Singapore, as no such planes exist in Thailand. But part of the spill was not dispersed, and washed up on Koh Samed’s Ao Phrao beach. Since then, Samed has seen a 70 percent drop in tourist visits. Here we take a look at the information coming out from the various parties involved.

What the PTT Says

The company responsible for the incident, PTTGC, says there was no human error or outdated equipment involved. A five-person committee is expected to submit a report on why the pipe, which was less than a year old, broke.

PTTGC expects the cleanup to be finished by the end of September. It also promised compensation to those affected. “The firm can confirm it’s ready to take responsibility for the oil incident and willing to compensate those who are affected immediately,” Anon Sirisangtaksin, Chief Executive Officer and President of PTTGC said. ”As soon as there’s proof of damage [we will pay claimants] without the insurance’s prompt.”

What the Authorities Say

The Energy Ministry has cleared PTTGC of any fault, claiming the accident was due to bad weather. They did blame the Royal Thai Customs for taking nine hours to permit the Singaporean chemical-dropping plane to dump the dispersant. The Energy Ministry also claims the water is safe and has slammed the Pollution Control Department for releasing tests that say otherwise.

On Aug 17, the Tourism Authority of Thailand held a concert, “Samed We Love,” on the island. For the occasion, they brought in journalists and travel industry professionals to witness the island’s speedy recovery. We were part of this press trip.

Rayong Governor Wichit Chartpaisit says 70 to 90 percent of the oil slick has now been cleaned up (as of Aug 17).

According to Pollution Control Department director-general Wichien Jungrungruang, the latest level of mercury in the seawater collected at Ao Phrao on Aug 8 by the Pollution Control Department was 2.9 microgram per liter, which exceeds the accepted standard of 0.1, and the contamination was also found in seawater around Koh Samed.

What Locals Say

A communication officer for the National Parks of Thailand who has been working on Koh Samed for five years, Alisara Sanguannam, told BK Magazine that it is understandable that people should fear for their health. “From the national park’s perspective, I think it will take about 10 years for the eco-system around Ao Phrao to recover. The upside is that having fewer tourists coming to the island is good for the environment. And the monsoon wind has helped keep the oil slick within the Ao Phrao area only. Other beaches look just fine.”
According to Pang, a local who sells coconut juice on Sai Kaew beach, “There are noticeably fewer tourists. Seafood is not selling well. Fishermen here say they’re catching less fish, and no one buys it anyway. It’s bad for anyone making a living here, but understandable. The fishermen would not eat the seafood themselves. I try to avoid seafood, too, now.”

What BK Magazine Saw

Popular beaches like Sai Kaew or Ao Pai, which are all on the east side of Samed, looked as clean as they were before the spill. As for the highly affected Ao Phrao, there’s a mild whiff of oil in the wind once we entered the area, and a close look at the beach reveals small slicks on the beach, which have returned despite previous cleanup efforts. The cleaning operation is ongoing, with about 100 men from the Thai navy and army working in difficult conditions­—they only have one portable restroom to share. It will require a lot more work before anyone can swim at this beach. A single splash of Ao Phrao’s seawater left oily stains on our flip-flops.

Frankly, we think that the frantic efforts to green-light tourists’ return to Samed may be premature. Clean-up efforts are still underway at Ao Phrao, and while other beaches look clean, more research is needed on the water quality. On the flip-side the lack of tourists does mean the island has regained some of its former idyllic charms—just opt for a resort with a pool.

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Address: Koh Samed: One Month After the Oil Spill, Rayong, Thailand
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