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Settlement reached on guarding against burning deaths of sea turtles in gulf

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; 6:58 PM

The Coast Guard and BP reached a settlement Friday with environmental groups over the issue of how best to guard against accidentally killing endangered sea turtles during controlled burns in the Gulf of Mexico aimed at curbing the oil spill's spread.

Four environmental groups -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Animal Welfare Institute and Animal Defense League -- had sued in federal court in New Orleans on Wednesday, charging that oil spill responders had taken inadequate precautions while conducting the controlled burns. While activists have not found charred remains of endangered Kemp's Ridley or other sea turtles in the region, they argued the animals are at risk because they tend to congregate in sargassum, seagrasses that burn crews frequently target.

Under the settlement, the two sides have agreed the Coast Guard will soon convene a group of scientists to determine how best to ensure that no endangered sea turtles die during controlled burns. The environmental groups will have input into assembling the group of experts, and the protocol scientists devise will be put on a fast track for public comment so it can be finalized quickly.

"Sea turtles are already suffering catastrophically from the oil spill and it would be outrageous to add insult to injury by burning them alive in the spill cleanup effort," said the Center for Biological Diversity's executive director Kieran Suckling in an interview. "It's a no-brainer to put sea turtle observers on the cleanup boasts and whisk the turtles out of the oil pools before they're set on fire."

No burning will take place in the gulf before Tuesday, because of poor weather conditions, and by then BP and the Coast Guard must inform the environmental groups whether they are prepared to put scientific observers on every burn boat to identify and remove all turtles before any burns resume.

If they can not make that assurance, Suckling said, the plaintiffs "will be back" in court challenging the controlled burns.

In a news release late Friday, the Unified Area Command, which is headed by the Coast Guard, made no mention of the legal settlement but said it "continues to build a sea turtle observer program for all on-water oil clean-up operations," which "will primarily focus on controlled burn and skimmer fleet operations."

"The command's Wildlife Branch is working now to determine when, where, and how observers can be best positioned to reduce risks posed to sea turtles by oil containment and clean-up activities," the statement continued. "In addition, the Wildlife Branch will begin to train additional sea turtle observers this weekend."

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