enviroment

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.

Thai Floods: At Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate, a microcosm of conflict

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Originally published at Siam Voices on November 7, 2011

Things seem calm on the bridge overlooking the Klong (Canal) Sam Wa Sluice Gate on the Eastern border of Bangkok. Just a few dozens of onlookers observe the water streaming through the gate through the gaps left and right, while around police officers take their lunch break under large tents. On the day before (Monday, Oct 31) that however, things seemed less than calm:

In one incident, parts of which were broadcast on local television news, a large group of angry residents in the Min Buri section of eastern Bangkok staged a rally starting Sunday to force the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to open a floodgate to drain water to the large Saen Saep canal nearby. Later, the residents marched to the floodgate and tried to destroy a concrete gate and sandbag wall around it with sledgehammers.

The residents complained that floodwaters are growing increasingly unhealthy, with rotten smells. But officials have said there’s a limit to how much water they can release because of the need to protect key economic assets in the area, including a market and the Bang Chan industrial estate nearby. Later, officials agreed to raise the gate some to drain off some water, and the residents backed down.

"Frustrations Rising with Floodwaters in Thailand", Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2011

There was scuffling between local residents and the police (see footage here), the one side unleashing their anger of being left alone to the force of nature and the other protecting one of the last flood barriers preventing the high tides flushing into the canals of inner Bangkok.

"We understand the anger of the people," says Somkuan Puengsap, a police colonel overlooking a 100-man strong police force to protect the gate from further damage. "The problem is, we police officers have no rights to open the sluice gates by ourselves," Somkuan continued, "We are only there to acknowledge the problem and try to mediate between the two conflicting parties."

Somkuan admitted that he has never seen anything like this before, as flooding has never been a problem in this area. Other police officers who requested to be unnamed have expressed their frustration that they are at the receiving end of political games between the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Bangkok governor Sukhamband Paribatra. The latter's Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) has been overruled by the federal government, when...

The prime minister invoked the disaster prevention law on Oct 21 to take full control of all flood operations as runoff from the North started surging into Bangkok. "I have ordered a committee to negotiate with residents [living upstream] to narrow the gate so that less overflow will enter Bangkok," she said.

Ms Yingluck said the gate had to be narrowed to regulate water flow. "We are talking to residents and we believe they will cooperate," she said. On Monday she ordered the BMA to widen the sluice gate to one metre after angry protesters destroyed parts of it while police officers looked on.

"PM backs down on sluice gate", Bangkok Post, November 3, 2011

The same feeling is shared by one resident North in viewing distance of the gate. Sitting crossed-legged on a stone bench, Thamon Yangprasert appeared calm and relaxed, overseeing the canal, which has overspilled to the sides knee-high. But when asked about how this could all happen, he lashed out against the political opponents of the Pheu Thai Party-led government: "It all comes down to politics! The Democrat Party (which Sukhumband belongs to), they want to remove Yingluck as prime minister."

"They have been stalling that water everywhere, in Ayutthaya, Wang Noi, they have put up barriers, so it cannot get into Bangkok. They are playing a cruel joke, because all the people out in the provinces are all red shirts! Nobody has voted for them! And now they want to remove Yingluck," he continues, hinting at the (small) possibility of what has been coined a 'water coup', whereas the Yingluck administration gets blamed for the slow flood relief efforts, opening the chance for the military to take take over.

Residents on the South side of the gate are now sharing the pain with their neighbors. "I didn’t mind them demanding to open up the gates. But then they started to chop off parts of the gate and they are still not happy enough, they demanded even more. The water level now is not how it’s supposed to be – I can accept that, but when they said they want it to be completely opened up, that I cannot accept," says Pimon Jeanjuer, as his house and property is now flooded as well.

While Pimon can understand their frustrations, he criticizes them of being short-sighted as his son's job in an industrial park in Ban Chan, along the Klong San Saeb, is now threatened to be flooded as well. Locals have gathered to discuss the situation and also to counter demands by other residents to fully open the gate, as they have prepared a letter to the officials explaining their side. That would be the first time that they would have gotten in contact with an official - a sense of abandonment is felt on both sides of the fence, as both Thanom and Pimon say that nobody from the BMA or other local authorities have showed up before to explain the situation to the residents.

While the gate has been fixed now, some say that the inner city of Bangkok is now at risk as the Klong Sam Wa flows directly into the Klong San Saeb, a vital canal leading into inner heart of the city, including the Sukhumvit area. Dr Seree Supharatid, Director of the Disaster Warning Centre at Rangsit University, argues on Thai television that this Klong will "definitely be not able to hold the mass of water coming in from the North" and predicts overflow of "no higher than one meter".

The area surrounding Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate is already flooded with badly smelling water. The contention in the community reflects a microcosm of conflict to save the center of the capital, while the outskirts bear the brunt of the deluge: the neighborhood South of the gate is angry at the local authorities for giving in to the protesters, while those opposite in the North feel that their area has sacrificed to protect the water from gushing into inner Bangkok. Either way, they cannot shake off their feeling that they have been victims of a political scuffle between the government and the BMA.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.