Turtle Tragedy

Posted on September 1, 2010

ALDF files suit against BP to prevent the burning alive of endangered sea turtles

Sea turtleWhile the words “British Petroleum” may now be forever linked with “oil spill” and “environmental disaster,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund refuses to let BP add “animal cruelty” to the company’s hall of shame. In June, we joined a coalition of animal protection and conservation groups concerned about reports that BP’s cleanup efforts were resulting in sea turtles being burned alive, and together we filed a lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order against British Petroleum America, Inc., British Petroleum Exploration & Production and British Petroleum PLC for being in violation of federal laws.

As if the recent disaster along the ecologically sensitive Gulf Coast weren’t bad enough–with heavy crude oil gushing from the seabed, spreading across thousands of square miles and onto fragile shorelines–officials from the Coast Guard and BP had likely turned the catastrophe into a flaming nightmare for sea turtles. Weeks after the April 20th explosion and sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history, workers began corralling some of the thicker oil on the water’s surface into “burn boxes” and torching it. Experts submitted testimony that in the process sea turtles trapped in the burn boxes were likely being incinerated.

Five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles live or breed in the Gulf, and as the Deepwater Horizon oil well hemorrhaged an unthinkable (and uncountable) amount of oil from its depths, hundreds of turtles and other marine animals died from the saturation, many by suffocation. But BP and the Coast Guard’s risky clean-up methods, and the threat they posed to sea turtles, were as unconscionable. These animals surface from beneath oil slicks because they are visually similar to the long mats of sargassum seaweed they instinctively seek for food and camouflage. As BP’s cleanup vessels corralled large oil patches for burning, doomed sea turtles caught in the mess likely had no way to escape the crude oil as it was set ablaze. BP contractors preparing burn-off measures even blocked the efforts of wildlife rescuers struggling to save the turtles.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, took legal action against BP, filing a suit in U.S. federal court that charged the oil giant with violating the Endangered Species Act and the terms of its lease with the United States government for the Deepwater Horizon facility, which requires BP to comply with all federal environmental laws. In addition, the temporary restraining order we sought demanded an immediate halt to any burns without sufficient precautionary measures to protect the turtles.

“As the news about the oil spill spread, we became increasingly alarmed about the impact that this disaster is having not only on endangered species, but on all of the many and varied creatures who live in the Gulf,” explains ALDF founder Joyce Tischler. “The media seemed focused on the impact on the local residents, the fishing and shrimp industries and the environment, but no one seemed focused on the plight of the animals. BP has desecrated their home and food sources and robbed them of a healthful, natural environment. We will probably never know the full number of marine creatures who die or are permanently impacted because of this catastrophe.”

BP has already likely killed or otherwise harmed hundreds of rare Kemp’s Ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and other species of sea turtles through its use of controlled burns or as a result of contamination from the oil spill itself. “We are concerned, not only about the five species of endangered turtles and the potential for their total extinction, but also for the individual turtles–their suffering and their lives are important,” adds Tischler. “Throughout the process of dealing with this oil spill, the interests and protection of the animals must be considered.”

Tischler is also alarmed by another aspect of the cleanup effort. “To add insult to injury,” she says, “BP also used unprecedented amounts of dispersants that may be causing significant additional harm to all of these living beings.” Chemical dispersants are sprayed from aircraft and break up the oil into tiny drops, making the oil more water soluble. But even if, as BP claims, the chemicals are not dangerous, by converting the thick sludge into droplets, dispersants make the oil less visible, thus masking the full environmental impact of the spill and helping to limit the company’s legal and financial liability. Tischler is among those who believe the unprecedented amount of chemicals being applied to the Gulf is reckless at best. “The use of these toxic dispersants may prove to be one of the worst decisions ever made,” she says.

The good news is that as a result of our lawsuit, BP and the U.S. government agreed to work with biologists, animal advocates and the rescue community to ensure that turtles and other marine animals are safely removed from the burn sites before any future burns are carried out. In the meantime, ALDF has filed the 60-day advance notice that is necessary to bring suit under the Endangered Species Act, in case we should have to sue again. Stay tuned, as ALDF is also exploring other needs for wildlife protection in the Gulf in the wake of this catastrophe.