BP Kills Turtles in Oil Containment Burns, Lawsuit Says

Endangered sea turtles are being killed in BP Plc’s “controlled burns” in the Gulf of Mexico by getting trapped inside the booms the company uses to collect spilled oil, wildlife activists said in a lawsuit.

London-based BP, which is struggling to control the largest spill in U.S. history, should be forced to stop the burns or ensure no turtles are caught inside the floating “corrals” before the oil is ignited, the environmentalists said in the suit. BP’s killing of the turtles constitutes an illegal “taking” of an endangered species under environmental laws, they claim.

The plaintiffs seek a temporary order restraining BP from any activities in the Gulf of Mexico that could risk killing or injuring endangered and threatened sea turtles, William Eubanks and Jason Burge, lawyers for the environmentalists, said in papers filed in New Orleans federal court yesterday.

Environmentalists amended the suit today to include the U.S. Coast Guard and its top commanders, who are in charge of efforts to contain and clean up the BP oil spill. Court summonses were requested for Admiral Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard, and Admiral Thad Allen, the head of the Coast Guard’s national incident command.

‘Direction of Coast Guard’

“Plaintiffs have recently learned that BP takes the position that it does not have complete control over the containment burns and that, in conducting these activities, it is acting under the direction of the Coast Guard,” lawyers for the wildlife groups said in an amended complaint today.

“If this is correct, this means that by directing BP to conduct containment activities that are killing, injuring and otherwise harming endangered and threatened species, the Coast Guard is in violation of its mandatory duty” to minimize damage to wildlife.

The case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who set a hearing on the request for July 2. Barbier already presides over 35 lawsuits claiming spill-related damages by fishing industry workers, property owners, tourism businesses and other environmental groups.

Leatherbacks, Loggerheads

“BP has already killed or otherwise harmed” hundreds of rare Kemp’s Ridley, Leatherback, Loggerhead and other species of endangered sea turtles through its use of controlled burns or as a result of contamination from the oil spill itself, the lawsuit claims. The animals become trapped when shrimp boats encircle patches of floating oil with fire-resistant booms to create “burn boxes” 60 to 100 feet in diameter, they said.

In affidavits filed with the lawsuit, boat captains and turtle rescue workers say that in recent weeks they’ve saved numerous sea turtles that were trapped in heavy oil-sludge lines offshore, many from the same areas where trawlers are corralling sludge for controlled burns. The turtles are too heavily oiled to free themselves from the sludge and swim to safety, although out of the oil they respond well to rehabilitation, the witnesses said.

“Although I assume that such acts are an unintentional consequence of BP’s controlled burning strategy, I expect that these incidental burnings are almost certainly occurring based on my personal observations,” said Kevin Aderhold, a Louisiana charter boat captain involved in the sea turtle rescue effort.

BP spokesman Tony Odone said the company had no comment on pending litigation.

BP has yet to contain a damaged underwater well that has been spewing as much as 60,000 barrels of crude oil daily off the Louisiana coast since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burned and sank in April.

The case is Animal Welfare Institute v. BP America Inc. et al, 2:10-cv-01866, U.S. District Courts, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com.

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