After the Thai oil spill clean-up, questions remain for PTTGC

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 4, 2013 Efforts to clean up a massive oil spill of the coast of Rayong province come under scrutiny by various environmental activists and agencies, as the company causing it is scrambling not only to contain the oil, but also a public relations disaster.

One week ago on Saturday night, an oil pipe line 35 km off Ko Samet, an island popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike, leaked at least 50 tons or nearly 50,000 litres of crude into the sea and over the course of the week drenched Ao Prao on the west of the island (see Bangkok Pundit's post here), parts of the mainland and a large oil slick at times bigger than the island itself swimming in between.

Satellite images from the Thai Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) show the the movement of the oil slick (green circles). The oil spill hit Ao Phrao on Ko Samet (red circles) and the mainland (purple circles), as the slick itself is seemingly gone by Friday. (GIF animation by Saksith Saiyasombut)

The operators of the leaking pipe line, PTT Global Chemical Plc (PTTGC) - a daughter-company of the state-owned oil and gas company PTT Plc - assumed that the spill was quickly containable, but much later admitted to have underestimated an impending environmental disaster:

[PTT Global Chemical Plc (PTTGC) president Bowon Vongsinudom] said the company's oil spill handling team considered the situation "under control" on Sunday after 10 ships and an aeroplane from Singapore were deployed to tackle the slick. (...)

Mr Bowon said the company had already closed down its war room and staff members had packed up their belongings to return to Bangkok. On Sunday evening, a few hours after the war room was shut down, Mr Bowon was informed that globules of oil sludge were polluting the Ao Phrao shore.

"We were puzzled as to where this oil was from," Mr Bowon said. "It was huge. It is one of two puzzles that I cannot find the answers to yet. The first one is how the pipe broke in the first place. The other one is where did this oil come from."

He said the company immediately sent a team of about 40 workers to fight the sludge at Ao Phrao.

"PTT president thought slick under control", Bangkok Post, August 2, 2013

Hundreds of workers, consisting of the Thai Navy, other official agencies and volunteers were deployed to Ko Samet for the clean-up efforts, as tourists either relocated to the other side of the island, left it entirely and were discouraged to come here in the first place, while local fishermen are also severely affected by the spill.Facing a bigger problem than anticipated, PTTGC's reacted again:

PTTGC apologized on Monday and said the cleanup will likely be completed within three days.

"Thai oil spill spreads to new bay on resort island", Associated Press, July 30, 2013

It was safe to assume by this point that this was a highly ambitious goal. PR-wise, the black Monday continued later that day when - apparently oblivious to the current crisis - PTT launched a set of stickers promoting environmental awareness of the mobile instant messaging platform LINE, much to the public ridicule for the impeccable timing.

On Thursday, PTTGC took the PR-damage control head on and launched a dedicated website to the oil spill in both Thai and English (although the former has more frequent updates) and issued another apology. Furthermore, PTTGC pledged to have cleaned everything up "in seven days" now and promising "full compensation".

Nevertheless, many questions are left unanswered, particularly what chemicals were used in the clean-up.

PTTGC has remained silent about what chemicals it is using but also said they could pose a hazard to the environment and people's health. (...) Lack of information about the chemicals has prompted experts to pressure authorities and PTTGC to provide more details.

"Alarm bells sound over oil spill dispersant use", July 31, 2013

Initially, it was feared that PTTGC would be using the oil dispersant Corexit, which was prominently used in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Corexit breaks down floating oil slicks into small droplets that sink below the surface and even to the sea floor, effectively vanishing the oil it into the water rather than dissolving it. As a result, a study has shown an increased toxicity in the ecosystem after the usage of Corexit.

Almost immediately, PTTGC revealed on August 1 that they were using Slickgone NS TYPE 2/3, an internationally approved (by the Australian, UK and EU authorities) oil dispersant that works similarly to Corexit. However, there's some controversy over the amount that was used in the clean-up:

[Thailand's Pollution Control Department] Director general Wichien Jungrungruang said the company asked for permission to use 5,000 litres of the dispersant chemicals for the oil decomposition.

Nonetheless, PTTGC recently announced that it has so far already used 32,000 litres of chemicals to decompose the oil spill.

Mr Wichien said the company had not yet sought permission to release the over-regulation amount of chemicals. The director-general said the company should have, but he said the department understood that PTTGC needed to take immediate action to tackle the problem.

"PTTGC uses more chemicals than permitted to remove oil slick", MCOT, August 1, 2013

While the producer of Slickgone NS TYPE 2/3 recommends a ratio of 1 part oil dispersant to 20-30 parts of oil slick, PTTGC has evidently used over 6 times the amount more than they were initially allowed. Long-term effects of the spill and the clean-up have yet to reveal how damaging PTTGC's handling is. There has been no word yet of an investigation into this particular issue, but Thai authorities are already pressing for legal charges against the company.

It has been one week from hell for the state-owned oil and gas giant PTT dealing with the oil spill and the initial PR disaster as well. While PTTGC have been scrambling to provide information, but still have a lot of questions to answer for - and that at a time, when the mother company PTT just pledged to improve its public image.