Streaks of crude oil are marring the beach on a popular tourist island in Thailand's eastern sea despite attempts to clean up a spill from a leaking pipeline, officials say.
Tourists were warned to stay away as black waves left inky globs on Samet Island's once-serene white beaches on Monday (local time) while hundreds of workers in white jumpsuits laboured to scrape the sand clean and remove oil from the water.
Oily streaks about 300 metres wide marred the shore of Prao Bay on the island that is one of the most popular beach destinations for Thai and foreign tourists in the Gulf of Thailand, Rayong Deputy Governor Supeepat Chongpanish said.
He said authorities closed the bay as 300 workers attempted to remove the oil from the white beach and the water.
"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," Supeepat said. "This is a very beautiful, white, sandy beach, so we want to make the spill go away as soon as possible."
About 50 tons of oil spilled into the sea off Rayong province on Saturday morning from a leak in the pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical, a subsidiary of state-owned oil and gas company PTT.
It is the fourth major oil spill in the country's history, Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal said.
Provincial authorities declared the nearby area a disaster zone, and those affected will receive immediate assistance.
"The black waves started rolling in since last night and by the morning the beach was all tainted with oil," said Kevin Wikul, the assistant front desk officer at a resort in Prao Bay. He added that some guests requested early check-outs on Monday.
The company said it detected a leak when crude oil from a tanker moored offshore was being transferred to the pipeline, 20 kilometres from a refinery in Map Ta Phut, one of the largest industrial estates in Southeast Asia.
The company said in a statement that it has flown in oil spill management experts and a plane from Singapore to remove the crude oil. Thai navy vessels also joined the cleanup efforts.
Authorities said it would take some time to assess the environmental damage.
"The spill is definitely having an impact on the environment, but we have not detected any deaths of marine animals yet at this point," provincial Governor Wichit Chatphaisit said. "PTT will have to take responsibility for the damage this has caused."
He said pollution control department officials had expressed concern about the effects of the chemical used to clean up the spill.
PTTGC apologised and said the cleanup will likely be completed within three days.
"We acknowledge this incident has damaged our reputation and we will not let it happen again," chief executive Anon Sirisaengtaksin told a news conference.
In 2009, another PTT subsidiary was involved in the Montara oil spill, one of Australia's worst oil disasters, in the Timor Sea off western Australia.
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