Members of Thailand's military dressed in white hazmat suits shovel oil-soaked sand from Ao Prao Beach on Thailand's Samet Island (map) on Monday after crude oil from a leak out at sea washed ashore.
The oil spill happened on July 27 about 12 miles (20 kilometers) off the coast of Thailand's Rayong province, located southeast of the capital city of Bangkok. The source was a pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil and gas company. The company estimates that about 13,000 gallons (50,000 liters) of heavy crude oil escaped into the Gulf of Thailand. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Oil Spills.")
Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the cleanup workers in Thailand are likely taking a "triage approach" to cleaning up the spill.
"The first step in any spill is controlling the source of the oil," Helton explained. "The next step is to pick up all of the loose, mobile oil that might still be moving around. And the last stage will be the cleanup of the shore itself."
"Mangroves grow right in the intertidal zone and use their roots for respiration," he explained, "so if you coat their roots with oil, that can affect the viability of the plants."
Photograph by Jan Wlodarczyk, Alamy
Black waves of crude oil-contaminated seawater wash ashore on a beach on Samet Island, one of Thailand's most popular tourist destinations, on Monday.
PTT Global Chemical Plc, the company in charge of the 16-inch pipeline that leaked the oil, said it detected the spill when crude oil from a tanker moored offshore was being transferred to the pipeline for delivery to a PTT refinery.
"The top priorities right now are to get rid of the oil on the sand and the seawater, and to make sure the spill doesn't spread to other shores," Rayong Deputy Gov. Supeepat Chongpanish told the Associated Press.
"This is a very beautiful, white, sandy beach, so we want to make the spill go away as soon as possible," he said of the Prao Bay shore.
An official with the government's Marine and Coastal Resource Conservation Center was quoted saying that this week's spill is the biggest in Rayong province's history and the first to affect Samet Island.
Photograph from European Pressphoto Agency
A Blow for Tourism
Members of the Thai military haul buckets of oil-coated sand and garbage bags stuffed with cleanup waste at a beach on Samet Island.
The beach has been closed by Thailand's tourism authorities, and tourists have been warned to stay away as 300 or so workers attempt to remove the oil from the sand and water.
"We have advised our guests against going near the beach and some of them have asked for early check-outs," Kevin Wikul, the assistant front desk officer at a resort in Prao Bay, told the Associated Press.
Garbage bags filled with waste from the cleanup effort are gathered into a pile on Ao Prao Beach on Thailand's Samet Island, which was contaminated by crude oil from an offshore spill that happened over the weekend.
NOAA's Helton said the disposal of the cleanup waste will depend on its makeup. If it consists mostly of oil, beach sand, and seawater, it may be possible to reclaim some of the oil.
"Or if there's a lot of woody debris and other things mixed in, it could be burned in a controlled way ... or taken to a landfill or someplace where they can use the sand and oil for making asphalt and other things," Helton explained.
Photograph by Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters
A cleanup participant stands atop an oil absorbing sheet to soak up crude oil that washed ashore on Thailand's Samet Island Monday.
About the size of a newspaper, the sheets are designed to absorb oil but not water, NOAA's Helton explained.
Workers are also using booms made of the oil-absorbent material to prevent contaminated water from reaching shore.
The booms "absorb the oil but also help keep it from spreading," Helton said.
PTT Global Chemical has apologized for the oil spill and said the cleanup will likely be completed within three days.
NOAA's Helton said workers might be able to clean up much of the "gross contamination" in that time frame, but restoring the beach to its pre-spill condition could take much longer.
"The last 10 percent [of a cleanup] takes as much time as the first 90 percent," Helton said.