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Sierra Club Can’t Join U.S. to Sue BP Over Spill, Judge Says

The Sierra Club lost its bid to join the U.S. government’s civil lawsuit against BP Plc seeking billions of dollars for violations of pollution laws and damage to natural resources during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The environmental group asked on Feb. 7 for “a seat at the table” in the government’s case, saying environmentalists would push for stiffer fines than the U.S. would. The government argued that environmentalists could express their opinions through “friend of the court” briefs.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan in New Orleans said in her ruling today that the Sierra Club could make its positions known without becoming a party to the litigation.

“In the event there is a settlement, it will be able to present public comment,” Shushan said in her ruling.

The court is overseeing more than 350 lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The government may pursue fines against BP of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel spilled, depending on the level of negligence it determines was involved in the incident. The government lawsuit also seeks billions of dollars for restoration of publicly owned wetlands, marshes, beaches, fisheries and wildlife harmed by the spill.

Rig Explosion

More than 4.1 million barrels of crude oil gushed from a subsea well off the Louisiana coast, after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April of last year. BP, as owner of the offshore lease, is legally responsible for civil fines and natural resources restoration costs under the Oil Pollution Act.

The Sierra Club, based in San Francisco, claims regulators may share some blame for the environmental damage because they approved “BP’s grossly inadequate oil spill response plans” and let London-based BP “over use damaging oil dispersants” during the government-directed spill clean-up effort, the group’s lawyers said in court papers.

“The facts here simply do not support Sierra Club’s intervention into the United States’ enforcement action,” Justice Department lawyers said in a Feb. 28 filing. The government said the environmentalists’ intervention wasn’t necessary because the two groups “ultimately seek the same objectives.”

Wyn Hornbuckle, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment. Eric Huber, a Sierra Club lawyer, didn’t return a voice-mail message seeking comment after regularly business hours.

Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman, declined to comment.

The case is In Re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

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