Nonprofits sue BP, MMS for dangers oil spill poses to endangered wildlife

Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to the protecting animals and plants in their natural habitat, has partnered with the Southern Environmental Law Center to file a lawsuit against BPfor the “unauthorized take” of endangered species caused by BP’s expanding oil spill and its use of chemical oil dispersants in unprecedented quantities.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting the health and environment of Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

The two firms notified BP yesterday that they are filing the lawsuit because the oil spill created when the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon sank directly imperils 32 threatened or endangered species that make the Gulf of Mexico their home. These species include the sperm whale, gulf sturgeon, manatee, and five kinds of sea turtles (leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley). The oil spill also jeopardizes the fragile ecosystems among the coastal wetlands and National Wildlife Refuges that harbor so many of these aquatic species.

The Endangered Species Act protects animals and plants at risk of becoming extinct by prohibiting individuals and other entities from harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, killing, trapping, capturing, and collecting endangered species. Attempting to engage in any of these activities, defined collectively as “taking,” is also illegal.

Attorney Catherine Wannamaker of the Southern Environmental Law Center said her firm is “concerned about the oil-covered wildlife that we may see onshore, but we’re also extremely concerned about what’s happening below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This is shaping up as an unprecedented disaster for the people and wildlife of the Gulf. From plankton to endangered sperm whales to fishermen, BP has put an entire ecosystem at risk and must be held accountable.”

Wannamker’s concerns about what’s happening beneath the surface echo the worries of the Environmental Protection Agency and many scientists who believe the oil dispersants could pose a risk as great as the oil itself.

BP has said that it has mobilized one third of the world’s entire supply of dispersants, and it has released more than 700,000 gallons of Corexit since the spill occurred on April 22. BP has been injecting the oil plume with Corexit near the source, thousands of feet underwater – an application whose environmental effects have never been studied. Also unprecedented is the sheer quantity of the chemicals being dumped into the Gulf.

Scientists say that a lot of the oil’s toxic properties evaporate when they come into contact with air at the surface, but these toxic compounds are trapped if the oil is held underwater. Many are worried that BP’s subsea use of dispersants is causing an oil slick to accumulate on the ocean floor, where many species find food and lay their eggs. Chemical dispersants also can cause genetic mutations and cancer.

Earlier this month, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) for its lax oversight of oil drilling operations. The lawsuit details the federal agency’s failure to require a thorough examination of spill risks from exploratory drilling operations like the Deepwater Horizon, many of which contain wells at even deeper depths than the well currently spilling oil into the Gulf.

That lawsuit also seeks to prohibit the MMS from continuing to exempt new exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico from environmental review. Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center also claim that MMS violated the Endangered Species Act because its analyses of exploratory drilling’s impact on threatened species have been disastrously inadequate.