The operation on the first day (Sep 4) to try to intercept the spilt oil. Credit: The Navy/ DCMR

Rehabilitation for marine environment in Chonburi set out after oil spill clean-up

Officials concerned have chorused in unison that no environmental impacts of the incident are found in the area while the residents have said otherwise

Representatives of residents in Si Chang and others in Si Racha district of Chonburi province set sights on meeting representatives from Thai Oil Plc and concerned officials this week to address possible impacts of the oil spill on the environment and locals’ livelihoods as well as rehabilitation and reparations.

“It’s not yet over for us,” said Dr. Somnuck Jongmeewasin, EEC Watch research director, who will represent Si Chang’s residents.

According to the residents, flimsy thin oil has been found floating over the sea surface in Na Kluea Bay in Pattaya and north of Koh Loi and Tambon Bang Phra over the past few days. Tons of dead fish have also been found floating over the sea surface, with some being washed ashore, but plankton booms that are seasonal to the areas are pointed out as the main cause of the death of the fish by concerned officials.

Chonburi Traditional Fishery Association raised concern on Thursday when the clean-up mission was declared completed that the rush to use “super dispersant” to disperse and sink the spilt oil could affect the shallow sea both short and long terms and at least three districts of Si Chang, Si Racha, and Bang Lamung could be affected as a result.

“We call on the company through the district chiefs for its responsibility over the incident and long-term impacts of the pollution and over rehabilitation of our sea,” said the association in its statement.

The flimsy thin oil was reported to have reached some aquaculture farms in Si Racha on Sep 8. Credit: Sonthi Kotchawat

The oil spill

On the night of last Sunday (Sep 3), about 60,000 litres of crude oil leaked while a Panama-registered tanker, Kallista, was discharging crude oil into a pipeline which was reported as being broken around the single point mooring operated by Thai Oil (SBM-2), about 10 km off Si Racha coast, according to the Marine Department, which acted as a coordinating body of the oil spill response command centre immediately set up to control the situation following the national plan on oil pollution prevention and control.

Shortly after the spill, officials concerned along with the company’s workers rushed to the scene to close the valve and lay booms to enclose the spilt oil. Up to 23 ships from both state agencies including the Navy and private companies were called in to help in the operation of dispersing and sinking the oil with “Super Dispersant 25” approved by the Pollution Control Department (PCD). Up to 8,000 litres of the dispersant was used in this operation, according to the Marine Department.

According to the PCD, the department on Sep 4 ran a model to project the direction in which the spilt oil was heading. It found that the spilt oil was travelling towards the eastern side of Si Chang island, a popular tourist attraction, and if the wind was strong, it was likely that the oil could land ashore around noon of Sep 5, from Bang Phra beach down to Ao Udom, around four kilometres in total.

The operation on the first day. Credit: The Navy/ DMCR

In order to control the situation and mitigate impacts on the marine environment there, the department decided to approve the use of the dispersant, about 4,500 litres, PCD Director-General Pinsak Suraswadi gave an update over the PCD’s Facebook Page on that day.

On Sep 5, the department detected sheets of flimsy thin oil scattering over the sea surface east of Si Chang, but in the evening, the oil had disappeared. The department conducted a monitoring on at least five areas; Si Chang island, Ao Udom, Loy island, Bang Phra beach, and Won Napha beach. Seawater from the sites was also collected for lab testing.

In the meantime, the Marine Department also dispatched officials and booms to those areas to watch over possible oil slicks landing ashore, but throughout their operation, the department said there were no oil slicks floating along the coast or landing ashore for three consecutive days. So the centre decided to end the operation and close the centre, according to the department.

The department said it is about to set up a sub-panel to work on environmental damage assessment and rehabilitation processes. A rehabilitation plan will be formulated and a new body to take in complaints and work on reparations will also be set up alongside, it said.

“The success in the operation this time comes from cooperation from all concerned following the national plan that we have, and we will do an after-action review to improve our operation and capacity in the future,” said the department’s deputy Director-General  Puripat Teerakunpisut.

Thai Oil Plc’s Chief Executive Officer and President expressed his regret and offered apologies for the incident that occurred. He said as soon as the incident occurred, the company promptly deployed resources and assets, coordinating with all stakeholders to address the situation, prevent, and mitigate the impact on the community and the environment. This, he added, resulted in a swift return to a controlled and resolved state.

“As for the cause of the incident in question, the company is currently conducting a detailed investigation and collaborating with technical experts and relevant agencies to ensure clear and accurate information.

“Additionally, the company will fully cooperate with various government agencies in monitoring, inspecting, and taking necessary actions to ensure that the marine environment remains unaffected by the incident,” said Mr. Bandhit in the company’s press release.

The map showing the incident that occurred and the spilt oil towards several locations on Sep 5. Credit: GISTDA

The dispersant

The public, however, has doubts. Aside from the residents’ complaints, Move Forward Party MPs from the East also stepped out to demand concerned agencies to disclose information concerning the operation, especially the use of the dispersant in the shallow sea of Si Chang and nearby areas.

The MPs questioned why the incident still happened despite the fact that the company has procedures on their crude oil management at sea as addressed in its environmental impact assessment (EIA). They demanded a transparent and thorough investigation on the incident to see. The point in focus is the use of the dispersant, which they claimed should rather be a final choice as using it at a shallow sea could cause massive impacts on the marine environment. 

“Such an incident has happened several times already. The question is whether or not the government should learn the lessons so that it can prevent it better,” said Rayong MP Sahaswat Khumkhong.

Sonthi Kotchawat, a pollution assessment expert and a former senior official at the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (Onep), posted his observations on the use of the dispersant on his Facebook that at shallow water, the dispersant could improperly disperse and sediment over corals or marine plants and animals on the sea floors. He suggested concerned agencies file a complaint to demand compensation following the Environmental Quality Act. 

So far, the Marine and Coastal Resources Department, which has also been monitoring the possible impacts of the incident on the marine environment, has reported up until Sep 9 that there are no oil films or tar balls detected over the target areas as well as corals underwater. The sea around is being contaminated by plankton booms, which could be the prime cause of the massive death of marine mammals in the areas. There is nothing to do with the oil spill, it said.

This oil spill incident, unfortunately, is not the first. In late January last year, Star Petroleum Refining (SPRC) reported to the Rayong Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office about the incident of crude oil leaking from an undersea pipeline at its single point mooring (SPM), which is the company’s offshore oil transfer point on the night of January 25. Initially, at least 160,000 litres of crude oil were reported as leaking and spilling over one square kilometre of the seawater before reaching the shore.

A similar incident occurred in the same province around nine years back, damaging tourism as the spilt oil was washed ashore at its famed Samed island. According to Greenpeace, over 200 oil spills took place in the last 45 years, with at least nine major incidents reported, challenging the country’s management of pollution from oil spills.

PCD officials collect samples of seawater for lab tests. Credit: PCD