Author: Matthew Bigg
|Sea turtles sickened by contact with toxic oil from BP Plc’s April 20 spill rehabilitate at Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 17, 2010. Photo: Reuters/Anna Driver|
U.S. environmental groups filed a suit on Wednesday against British-based oil giant BP Plc saying the world’s worst offshore spill inflicted “ongoing unlawful” harm on endangered wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. The suit is one of thousands of damages cases to stem from the spill from BP’s blown-out undersea Macondo well, which between April and July dumped millions of gallons (liters) of oil into the sea, fouling coastlines in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The well was capped in mid-July.
But while the bulk of the cases have been brought by affected individuals, like fishermen, hoteliers and companies, this one brought by conservation groups focuses on endangered sea turtles, whales, birds and Florida manatees. The case was filed in federal court in Louisiana six months after the DeepWater Horizon rig explosion that triggered the spill. It says that these species were harmed by the leaked oil but also that oil in the ocean continues to do them harm.
“The harmful effects of the BP oil well blowout on endangered and threatened wildlife will continue for many years,” said Gregory Buppert, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We ask the court to compel BP to provide the resources necessary to ensure (that) imperiled species in the Gulf recover from this disaster,” said Buppert, whose organization filed the suit along with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Gulf Restoration Network and the Save the Manatee Club.
Since harm to the species cannot immediately be remedied, the plaintiffs would like BP to set up a fund to help Gulf wildlife as a whole, said SELC lawyer Catherine Wannamaker. The suit did not estimate a total value for the fund. But some environmental experts say proving continuing and ongoing harm—as opposed to simply past harm—will not be easy for the specific species described in the suit, paving the way for a legal battle. BP has consistently said it will consider all legitimate claims for damages related to the spill.
The disaster spawned a plethora of lawsuits against BP and partner companies involved in drilling the Macondo well. Gulf Coast fishermen, hoteliers and others who sustained economic losses through the spill have filed suits because their losses stemmed from environmental damage.
One remedy for this group is the $20 billion compensation facility set up by BP and administered by Kenneth Feinberg but victims can also sue BP and many of those cases are consolidated into a multi-district litigation suit in New Orleans. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility administered by Feinberg has paid $1.45 billion in claims since it took over the claims process from the company on August 23. A second group of suits was filed by states and the federal government over harm to their natural resources. Louisiana sustained the most damage and could eventually receive billions of dollars in compensation, according to one environmental lawyer.
Lawyers have also filed suits over the terms under which the government has issued permits to oil companies, including six cases filed in federal court by the environmental group Earthjustice, said David Guest, a lawyer with the group. The suits challenge permits issued by the government’s former Minerals Management Service bureau that waived requirements of oil companies to disclose plans in the event of a worst case scenario or a requirement to say how they would deal with the failure of a blowout preventer. This preventer mechanism is designed to avert catastrophic blowouts of wells. Since the spill, the bureau has been renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The effect of the Earthjustice suit and others will be to sharpen scrutiny on government handling of drilling permits, said Adam Babich, director of the environmental law clinic at Tulane University. Before the spill, “the environmental community was not paying as much attention as they should have. If there are no challenges to government action … the government gets lazy,” he said. (Case number 2:10-CV-03879 was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.)