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Unocal: Gulf Fish " Safe To Eat "

By Luong Quang Loc, Labor & Social Affairs Newspaper, Vietnam

An environmental official from Unocal Thailand tried to downplay public concern over mercury pollution and told a group of journalists recently that fish in the Gulf of Thailand is safe to eat.
"Unocal Thailand officials and workers eat fish from the Gulf, and we see ourselves in the forefront of mercury control issues," said Tawatchai Siripatrachai, Unocal Thailand’s manager for environmental programmes.
Unocal, which produces natural gas from offshore platforms in the Gulf of Thailand, has invested over US$6 million for water treatment efforts since 1996 to improve technology for removing mercury from its waste water, according to company documents.
Tawatchai claimed that Unocal’s latest studies show that fish in the Gulf does not contain excessive levels of mercury, a dangerous poison which can damage the central nervous system of human beings. Furthermore, Unocal documents claimed that from 1990 to 1996 several field studies showed there was no significant mercury pollution in the Gulf.
But a research paper produced by Thailand’s Pollution Control Department last year revealed that mercury levels in the fish, sediment and water around the natural gas production platforms “tend to be higher” than elsewhere in the Gulf, although it too concluded that fish in the Gulf is generally safe to eat.
The report, entitled  "Are Thai waters really contaminated with mercury?"  also noted that the sea near the Maptaphut Industrial Estate is another hot spot for mercury. Mercury levels in the water there average roughly 60 parts per trillion (ppt), under the Thai standard of 100 ppt but well over the world average of 10 ppt for mercury in coastal water.
Unocal first found that mercury occurs naturally in the gas produced from underneath the Gulf from studies at its Platong platform back in 1985, four years after production first began.
 In December of 1995, mercury issue became a hot news item when Dr. Piamsak Menasveta, a marine scientist from Chulalongkorn University who had been hired by Unocal, revealed that mercury levels in the fish around the platforms were rising. It was later reported that nearly 12 percent of the fish caught around the Erawan platform had mercury levels over the health standard of 0.5 parts per million.
" It was not Merry Christmas. It was mercury Christmas" , said Tawatchai. Unocal eventually revealed that it was releasing 90 kilograms of mercury into the sea in the waste water from its platforms. The company then vowed to improve its waste treatment system. But Tawatchai said it did not have enough information to make such improvements prior to 1996.
More recent studies by Piamsak have since showed that mercury levels in fish appear to be declining. In the meantime, however, high mercury levels have also been found in fish in and around Vietnam’s Mekong delta.
Tawatchai claimed that Unocal Thailand has cooperated closely with the Thai Government over the last nine years in order to study this problem on a broader level. He said the company has established an environmental steering committee to provide the reports about the mercury issue.
"We are still discussing the mercury issue. But I look forward to a happy end to this issue,"  he added.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.