KOH SAMET, Thailand -- Two rescue operations were set in motion last month when a burst pipeline sent tons of crude oil gushing into the sea near this idyllic resort island. One was cleaning up the spill. The other was defending the image of Thailand's tourism industry, crucial to the country's increasingly fragile economy.
Thai officials immediately played down the environmental impact of what was the country's third-largest oil spill. An executive with the state-owned oil group, PTT, speaking a day after the July 27 accident, told reporters that "everything was restored to normal." A day later, when a thick black tide of crude filled a bay of this popular resort island, the same executive, Pornthep Butniphant, said the oil would decompose naturally and have "no effect on the environment."
But it has taken far more than nature to remove the crude from the shoreline. Military units have spent the past three weeks decontaminating the bay. The soldiers have been joined by dozens of contractors who have been brushing rocks with dish-washing liquid to extract remaining traces of crude. A leading marine biologist said it would be years before marine life returned to normal in the worst-affected area.
Tourism is often seen in Thailand as a buffer when other economic activities slow down. With the economies of Southeast Asia entering an uncertain period, officials appear to be doing everything they can to sustain the record numbers of visitors of recent years.
In an effort to convince the public that swimming was safe, the sometimes-theatrical deputy prime minister, Plodprasop Suraswadi, summoned reporters Aug. 9 to watch him swim in Phrao Bay, the area affected worst.
Six days after his publicity stunt, the government's own pollution control department issued a report saying that the area was too polluted to swim, with potentially cancer-causing hydrocarbons present in the water that were nearly six times the permissible level.
Environmentalists say the government has been too hasty in declaring the area safe and has given misleadingly upbeat assessments about the spill.
Ply Pirom, a coordinator with the environmental group Greenpeace who specializes in toxic substances, said that government officials were being pressured to produce data that showed the water was clean, and that the government was too cozy with PTT, the highly profitable oil group. Thailand's natural resources and environment minister, Vichet Kasemthongsri, was previously chairman of the board at PTT.
"Everything about this issue is suspicious," Mr. Ply said. "They are saying the water is clear, but people are worried about what they don't see."
Mr. Plodprasop, the deputy prime minister, has criticized government data, saying other findings of the pollution control department -- that mercury in the water greatly exceeded safe levels -- were wrong. After his criticism, those findings were rejected by the Thai cabinet, and new tests were ordered. These produced lower mercury readings.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist who has examined the coastline extensively since the spill, said the government had been "too hasty to claim that everything had returned to normal."
"Nature takes time to recover," he said. "The Thai government has been too optimistic -- and is not in sync with reality."
Piamsak Menasveta, a marine-pollution expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the chairman of the country's Independent Commission of Environment and Health, called for an independent verification of the government's pollution data, particularly of the inconsistent mercury findings. "I am confident that there are some mistakes," he said in an interview.
Hotels have reported cancellations since the spill, especially among Western Europeans and weekend visitors from Bangkok, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from the jetty that connects Koh Samet with the mainland.
But the beaches here are far from empty, perhaps owing to the positive spin the government has put on the accident. A dozen tourists interviewed on the eastern side of the island, which was not directly affected by the spill, said they were unaware it had occurred.
"I don't know anything about this," said Wang Zhaoyang, a university student from Xian, China, visiting with her family. "If I knew before I came, I might have reconsidered."
Chinese and Russian tourists continue to arrive in large groups, tour operators say. "We would be in real trouble without the Chinese," said Sanya Boonyarit, a speedboat pilot who ferried tourists to the island.
The director of Thailand's pollution control department, Wichean Jungrungrueng, told Thai news outlets Thursday that beaches on the eastern side of the island were safe for swimming but that Phrao Bay still contained levels of total petroleum hydrocarbon, the potentially harmful chemicals found in crude oil, above acceptable limits.
The PTT official charged with the cleanup, Kun Patumraj, an executive vice president for engineering and maintenance, predicted that the affected area would be ready to receive tourists for the high season, which begins in November. He spoke in an interview Thursday on a beach where workers were flushing out small brown globules of oil from nearby rocks, causing a faint smell of crude to waft through the air. The company is carrying out regular tests of sand and water in the area affected by the spill, but Mr. Kun acknowledged a trust deficit. "It's difficult," he said. "Sometimes people don't believe us."
Mr. Ply of Greenpeace said the spill had highlighted a broader and longer-term question for Thailand: the sustainability of pristine beaches so close to industrial zones. Foreign visitors often envision Thailand as country of rice paddies and beach resorts, but the country is also a regional industrial powerhouse with the largest car industry in Southeast Asia and thousands of factories making a range of products like computer hard drives and chemicals.
At dusk on Koh Samet, tourists flock to a spot above a stretch of rocky shoreline on the island, where they watch the sunset. From the same spot in the evenings, a visitor can see twinkling lights and gas flares in the distance -- a petrochemical complex known as Map Ta Phut. The oil that spilled into the Gulf of Thailand in July, which a government committee says amounted to 54,000 liters, or 14,000 gallons, was bound for a refinery in the industrial zone.
A lawsuit by residents four years ago in Map Ta Phut temporarily stopped expansion of the refineries on environmental grounds. Government studies have shown that at least eight types of cancer among Thais were highest in Rayong Province, where Map Ta Phut and other industrial zones are located.
Mr. Piamsak, the maritime-pollution expert, said that regulations were lax and that the government did not have contingency plans to deal with oil and chemical spills. Critics say PTT was ill-prepared for the July spill. The company's largest boom, the tubular barriers used to contain spills, was only 200 meters -- or 650 feet -- long, vastly inadequate for a spill that spanned several kilometers.
Koh Samet, which is about 35 kilometers, or 20 miles, from the refineries, is technically part of a national park, although nearly every beach is blanketed with hotels and guesthouses, and back alleys are strewn with trash. Yet considering its proximity to industry, the waters here are remarkably clear.
To Ms. Wang, the tourist from China, where waterways are often blacked by pollution, the island appeared pristine. After emerging from a swim in a bikini, she scanned the beach.
"It's very beautiful here," she said.
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.