Case Name: Animal Welfare Institute, et al. v. BP America, Inc., et al.
Nature of Case: The Animal Welfare Institute and its co-plaintiffs brought claims pursuant to the Endangered Species Act and other laws against BP for burning critically endangered sea turtles as part of its clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico following the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The animal welfare and conservation groups subsequently amended their complaint to include the US Coast Guard as a defendant for directing BP’s containment activities.
Court: US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana
Year Filed: 2010
Plaintiffs: The Animal Welfare Institute; Center for Biological Diversity; Turtle Island and Restoration Network; Animal Legal Defense Fund
Defendants: BP America, Inc.; BP Exploration and Production; British Petroleum PLC; Admiral Robert J, Papp, Jr.; Admiral Thad Allen
Status: On July 2, 2010, the parties reached an interim agreement stipulating that BP and the US Coast Guard would institute standard protocols for sea turtle observation and rescue in the Gulf of Mexico in order to minimize any adverse impacts of containment activities on sea turtles. The following day, an emergency meeting was held with representatives of the parties and scientists to discuss the methods being employed by the US Coast Guard and how such methods could be altered to enhance the protection of sea turtles. On July 4, 2010, the US Coast Guard released its Best Management Practices for sea turtles and marine mammals related to in-situ burning operations for the Deepwater Horizon response.
Protection of Sea Turtles: Background
April 20, 2010 marked the beginning of what is considered by many to be the worst environmental catastrophe in US history—the day the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico fifty miles off the coast of Venice, Louisiana. Leased to British Petroleum (BP), the Deepwater Horizon rig was considered one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world. After exploding, it sank in 5,000 feet of water, and the ensuing sea floor oil gusher from the uncapped well wreaked havoc in the Gulf and surrounding coastal areas.
Not long after efforts to clean up some of the spilled oil began, the Animal Welfare Institute received word that sea turtles in the Gulf were being burned alive incident to the controlled fires BP was employing in its cleanup efforts. Shrimp boats were dragging together fire-resistant booms, and then igniting the enclosed “burn box”—trapping some turtles inside. The sea turtle species most affected by the oil spill and fires—the Kemp’s ridley—is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. § 1540(g).
On June 30, pursuant to the citizen suit provisions of the ESA and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (43 U.S.C. § 1349(a)(2)(A)), the Animal Welfare Institute along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island and Restoration Network, filed a complaint in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against BP, alleging multiple violations of law in connection with their containment activities and the resultant impact on endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. The animal welfare and conservation groups later amended their complaint to include the US Coast Guard as a defendant for its role in directing BP's containment activities.
The ESA prohibits any activity that “takes” a species listed as endangered. This includes any acts that “harm, wound, injure, harass, or kill” an endangered species. The lawsuit alleged that the endangered sea turtles who live in the Gulf of Mexico were being caught in the “burn boxes” created by the corralling of oil and then burned alive or otherwise harmed or harassed.
On July 2, the parties reached an interim agreement stipulating that BP and the Coast Guard would institute standard protocols for sea turtle observation and rescue in the Gulf of Mexico in order to eliminate or minimize any adverse impacts of containment activities on the turtles. The following day, an emergency meeting was held with representatives of the parties and scientists to discuss the methods being employed by the Coast Guard and how such methods could be altered to enhance the protection of sea turtles.
On July 4, the Coast Guard released its protocols for the protection of endangered sea turtles during burn operations for the remainder of the oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. These protocols, or “Best Management Practices,” call for trained observers to be present during the oil corralling process to search for any sea turtles caught in burn boxes. Prior to ignition of oil, all sea turtles found in burn boxes are to be removed by qualified rescue personnel, who are to accompany the burn task force. All live turtles retrieved are to be taken to an onshore facility for cleaning and rehabilitation.
Protection of Sea Turtles: Case Media
- The Animal Welfare Institute Files Suit Against BP for Burning Endangered Sea Turtles Alive – AWI Press Release
- BP Agrees to Measures to Prevent Burning of Endangered Sea Turtles – AWI Press Release
Protection of Sea Turtles: Additional Resources