NEW ORLEANS (CN) – On the 6-month anniversary of the beginning of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, three environmental groups sued BP for Endangered Species Act violations in Federal Court. The groups ask for an endowment to create sanctuaries for endangered whales and birds, and to protect sea turtles and manatees.
Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and the Save the Manatee Club say the worst oil spill in U.S. history and the subsequent cleanup “are reasonably certain to cause the take of numerous endangered and threatened species, including sea turtles, sperm whales, manatees, and piping plovers, in violation of the ESA.”
The groups say, “Steps can be taken to directly and indirectly mitigate the impact of the oil spill on these species to facilitate their continued survival and recovery in the region.” But they add that such steps must be taken now.
Those steps include, but are not limited to, rehabilitation of wildlife, removal of oil contamination from marine and coastal ecosystems, restoration of the ecosystems, establishment of a permanent endowment dedicated to the long-term restoration, maintenance and scientific research of Gulf species and ecosystems, and establishment of national marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges and other protected areas.
The groups say that while these immediate steps are necessary, “This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and ensuring the long-term survival and recovery of endangered and threatened species in the Gulf region in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will require these and many other steps.”
They add, “There are at least 27 animal species listed as endangered or threatened that utilize habitat in the Gulf. This list includes reptiles, birds, fish, and marine and land mammals.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, “a species is listed as ‘endangered’ when it is ‘in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,'” and “listed as ‘threatened’ when it is ‘likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a specific portion of its range.'”
Once a species is listed, it is entitled to a number of protections, including prohibition of harm and harassment and affirmative duties to promote the species’ conservation and recovery.
“The Flow Rate Technical Group, a group of scientists from federal agencies and academic institutions, estimate that the Deepwater Horizon well spilled 4.1 million barrels, or 172.2 million gallons, of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped,” the complaint states. “The cumulative oil-slick footprint from the Deepwater Horizon blowout covered thousands of square miles in the Gulf.”
At least 650 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline have been affected by oil: more than 380 miles in Louisiana, 110 miles in Mississippi, 75 miles in Alabama and 90 miles in Florida.
More than 50 percent of the oil spilled remains in the Gulf ecosystem, much of it in coastal and marine sediments, the groups say, citing figures from Florida State University oceanographer Ian McDonald, who testified to the President’s National Oil Spill Commission on Sept. 27.
“The volume of oil discharged to the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout dwarfs the approximately 12 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska,” the complaint states. “The much smaller Exxon Valdez oil spill produced long-term devastating impacts on the wildlife in Prince William Sound. Despite cleanup and restoration efforts, oil has persisted on beaches and in the sediments of Prince William Sound for more than twenty years.”
The effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have only begun to be seen. The most critical wildlife affected by the spill are endangered species, such as sea turtles, whales, endangered birds such as the piping plover, and manatees.
Five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles live in the water and on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. “Sea turtles show no avoidance response to oil slicks and will migrate into and through oil contaminated waters to nest and feed,” the complaint states.
“On October 14, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Unified Area Command reported that 605 dead sea turtles and 456 alive but visibly oiled sea turtles have been recovered in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.”
The complaint adds: “Sea turtles rapidly inhale large volumes of air before and after diving which increases their exposure to toxic vapors and oil contaminated waters.”
The groups say, “Sea turtles of all ages have trouble distinguishing tar balls from food and will ingest anything that appears food-sized. Oysters and clams, which are important sea turtle food sources, absorb oil and become toxic as a result of an oil spill. … A massive oil spill, like the Deepwater Horizon spill, will reduce sea turtle nesting success and adversely impact the health and survival of embryos and hatchlings.”
Two dead sperm whales have been found. The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico are habitat for these endangered creatures.
On June 16, “the Deepwater Horizon Unified Area Command noted in a press release that in addition to the discovery of a single dead sperm whale, its Wildlife Branch had received numerous reports of sperm whales swimming in oil.” A second dead sperm whale has recently been found in Plaquemines Parish.
Because the Gulf Coast is home to many migratory birds, the long-term impact of the oil spill poses the risk of dire impacts on the U.S. migratory bird population.
“The most visible impact of an oil spill on birds is the oiling of the feathers, which reduces the birds’ buoyancy and insulation. Oiled birds suffer from hypothermia and drowning. … Approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. population of piping plovers over-winters along the Gulf Coast. Piping plovers begin arriving on the Gulf Coast in early July where they forage for invertebrates on beaches and in marshes.”
The groups say that on Oct. 14, the Deepwater Horizon Unified Area Command reported that 4,343 visibly oiled birds, of which 2.263 were dead, had been recovered since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. (Just one dead piping plover was reported among the dead birds.
“It is reasonably certain that more piping plovers have likely been killed and injured by the spill, but their bodies have not been recovered,” the groups say.
Because manatees are difficult to track, there are no estimates for how many of those endangered mammals live in the Gulf.
“Because the oil spill occurred when manatees are most widely distributed in the coastal waters of the northern Gulf, it is reasonably certain that the release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout has caused the take of endangered manatees. Furthermore, it is reasonably certain that take of endangered manatees will continue to occur as manatees migrate to and from Florida waters,” the groups say
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that BP violated the Endangered Species Act, and an injunction to prevent or least mitigate more violations. The groups are represented by John Suttles with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.