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Thailand oil spill: Tourists abandon blackened Koh Samet beach

By Andrew Stevens, CNN
August 1, 2013 -- Updated 1102 GMT (1902 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Crews working to clean up oil spill on Thai beach at Koh Samet
  • Crude spilled on Saturday during transfer of oil from tanker to undersea pipeline
  • 50,000 liters of oil spilled into the water, though some say it could be more
  • PTT says remaining crude will be "90% clear by Friday or Sunday at the latest"

Koh Samet, Thailand (CNN) -- A picture postcard beach on one of Thailand's most popular tourist islands is now the focus of frantic efforts to staunch a tide of oil sweeping ashore.

Where pleasure seekers would normally relax on pristine white sand, sandwiched between two lush green headlands, now white-coated cleanup crew smeared with crude suck oil from the shallow waters.

Gobbets of oil lie along the beach, a thin sheen covers much of the wet sand and oil-drenched booms lie like giant black snakes along the shoreline.

The sea is a rust red color and the odor of fuel hangs heavy in the air. Not even a brisk onshore wind can keep the smell away.

A major oil spill on Sunday, July 28, coated Ao Phrao beach on the popular tourist island of Koh Samet in northern Thailand. Authorities estimate that around 50,000 liters (13,200 gallons) of crude oil was leaked from an offshore pipeline belonging to PTT Global Chemical, Thailand's largest petrochemical producer, and 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) have washed onto the white sand beaches of the island. A major oil spill on Sunday, July 28, coated Ao Phrao beach on the popular tourist island of Koh Samet in northern Thailand. Authorities estimate that around 50,000 liters (13,200 gallons) of crude oil was leaked from an offshore pipeline belonging to PTT Global Chemical, Thailand's largest petrochemical producer, and 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) have washed onto the white sand beaches of the island.
Oil spill blackens Thai beach
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Photos: Oil spill blackens Thai beach Photos: Oil spill blackens Thai beach
Why are tourists fleeing Thai beaches?
Map: Oil coats beach near Phrao Bay  Map: Oil coats beach near Phrao Bay
Map: Oil coats beach near Phrao BayMap: Oil coats beach near Phrao Bay

For the past four days crude has been washing up here and cleanup crews have been dealing with it the best way they can -- pumping it into holding tanks, containing it with booms, even mopping it up with absorbent pads.

READ MORE: Oil spill threatens 'tourism, fishing'

Ao Prao beach on the island of Koh Samet is the main impact zone of the 50,000 liters of oil (around 13,200 gallons) spilled during a faulty transfer operation between a tanker and a seabed pipeline on Saturday.

About 600 soldiers, volunteers and workers from PTT Global Chemical, the partially state-owned oil giant that has claimed responsibility for the spill, are involved in the cleanup.

A PTT spokesman says that 70% of the oil has been dealt with. The remaining crude will be "90% clear by Friday or Sunday at the latest."

In some ways Thailand has been lucky. There are more than 200 oil installations in the Gulf of Thailand, which co-exist uneasily in an area known as the marine bread basket of the country.

This spill appears to have been contained to one -- more remote -- beach on the island. The more popular resort areas a few kilometers further south say there is little evidence of the spill.

That's not stopping the tourists leaving though.

Resort operators say many have left, fearing their holiday will be ruined.

But this is low season here with occupancy around 30%. The economic damage would have been far worse a few months from now when most tourists visit, many from the capital Bangkok, 230km to the northwest.

Local fisherman say they've caught fewer fish over the last few days, but it's too early to estimate the damage to fish stocks.

There are no signs of affected marine or bird life at Ao Prao.

The focus is now switching to how this happened. A PTT spokesman told CNN that the leak on Saturday happened as a tanker was transferring crude to an undersea pipe. A giant flexible rubber hose used to transport the oil began to leak.

The hose is replaced every two years. This one had been in operation for just one year.

It's being sent to the manufacturer, Goodyear, for further tests.

PTT is also defending accusations that it has underplayed the amount of oil that leaked.

According to academics at two universities, satellite pictures of the spill, and the amount of dispersants used suggests it could have been twice as big -- 100,000 liters or about 26,000 gallons.

PTT says it is "confident" of its own calculations.

The Thai energy ministry has promised the results of an investigation within seven days.

Meanwhile the cleanup continues. It's a race against time. Every day, the pictures of the spill are flashed around the world increases the likelihood that tourists -- so important to this country's economy -- will go elsewhere for their fun in the sun.

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