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BP, Coast Guard Will Save Endangered Sea Turtles From Oil Burn Killings

BP Plc and the U.S. Coast Guard have reached an agreement to end the inadvertent killing of endangered sea turtles trapped inside containment booms during controlled burns of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lawyers said.

“We’ve agreed to meet to work out the terms to make sure the turtles are protected,” Jason Burge, a lawyer for several environmental groups suing to protect the sea turtles, told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier at an emergency hearing today in New Orleans federal court.

Details will be fleshed out over the weekend so that protections may be in place by the time controlled burns are set to resume on July 6, the lawyers told Barbier. The wildlife groups withdrew their request for a temporary restraining order blocking the burns, on the condition they may renew the request later if the turtle-rescue settlement falls apart.

Burge told Barbier oil-spill clean-up crews have suspended controlled burns because of bad weather caused by Hurricane Alex, the first tropical storm to enter the Gulf of Mexico this year, which slammed into northern Mexico on June 30.

William Eubanks, who also represents the wildlife groups, said in an interview outside the New Orleans courtroom that the activists want to include “qualified observers, like a biologist or a sea turtle researcher” to accompany crews conducting the burns. These trained personnel can spot and safely remove any sea turtles trapped within containment booms.

Mutual Goal

Don Haycraft, BP’s lead lawyer in New Orleans spill-related litigation, said the company will work with the Coast Guard and environmentalists to achieve a mutual goal.

“This effort is an example of BP and the government and the outside parties reaching a common agreement on an issue -- protecting sea turtles -- that is important to everyone,” Haycraft said.

Environmental groups sued BP and the Coast Guard on June 30, seeking to block the use of controlled burns or require all boats involved in the process to rescue turtles from inside floating burn boxes before the oil is ignited.

“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.

Swim to Safety

In affidavits filed with the lawsuit, boat captains and turtle rescue workers said they’ve saved numerous sea turtles that were trapped in heavy oil accumulations. Many of these rescued turtles were scooped from sludge floating in the same areas where trawlers were corralling crude 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.

BP and the Coast Guard estimate that 9.9 million gallons of crude oil recovered from the Deepwater Horizon well have been burned as of July 1, according to a statement on the joint command’s web site.

The wildlife activists added the Coast Guard to the lawsuit after BP said all company clean up and containment activities, including the controlled burns, are being carried out under Coast Guard orders.

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 reporters responsible for this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com; Allen Johnson in New Orleans at allenmct@gmail.com.

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