Questions raised over rush to reopen Ao Phrao

THAILAND - Giving people free access to Koh Samet's Ao Phrao Bay, which was hit by an oil spill a few months ago, has prompted concerns from a Silpakorn University academic and some locals, who feel the area might not be completely safe as yet.

"More detailed tests are required to determine if the bay is really fine," Assoc Prof Renu Vejaratpimol said yesterday. "The oil spill took place just about three months ago."

However, Assoc Prof Padermsak Jarayabhand, who heads the Chulalongkorn University's Aquatic Resources Research Institute, did not object to the reopening, saying the tests conducted on the seawater by the Pollution Control Department showed the bay was safe.

"The crux of the matter is safety. We shouldn't be too concerned about the length of time the bay had been closed," he said.

On July 27, about 50,000 litres of crude oil leaked from an offshore pipe owned by PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) off the coast of Rayong province. Ao Phrao - part of a national park - was hit hard and was closed to tourists from July 29, allowing time for extensive clean-up operations and rehabilitation efforts. The beach was reopened on Thursday.

Renu yesterday questioned whether the authorities were rushing to reopen Ao Phrao because they wanted to help PTTGC. "The sooner the bay reopens, the less the PTTGC will have to pay in compensation," she said.

The oil spill has had a dire effect on the tourism on Samet island.

"Occupancy rate at local resorts now stands at 20 per cent, compared to this period last year when all the rooms were booked," Pisanu Kemapan said yesterday in his capacity as chair of the Samet Restaurant and Resort Operator Association.

He said that while Koh Samet was still able to attract some Thai tourists, there were very few foreigners. "Foreign tourists are the key market for Samet Island," Pisanu said.

Rayong Local Fisheries Association's chairman Jaturas Iamworanirun said he still found huge numbers of razor clams dead on a Samet beach last week, which was proof that the environment on the island had not fully recovered.

"I would advise tourists to see a doctor and get a medical certificate if they develop a rash after swimming in Ao Phrao. Then they should file a lawsuit against the authorities for rushing to reopen the beach," he said.