Reporting from Atlanta — Three environmental advocacy groups sued BP on Wednesday, alleging the company's Gulf of Mexico oil spill harmed and killed both endangered and threatened species — one of hundreds of civil suits the oil giant will probably be fighting for years.
The suit, brought by the nonprofit groups Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and the Save the Manatee Club, says that the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig blowout and the resulting oil spill "have caused and will continue to cause the take of endangered and threatened species," including whales, manatees, birds and sea turtles that "show no avoidance response to oil slicks."
"Our concern is that the impact on threatened and endangered species is going to continue for a long time after the oil spill is in the news," said Gregory Buppert, a Defenders of Wildlife attorney. The lawsuit, brought under the Endangered Species Act, will "make BP accountable for the ongoing impacts," he said.
The suit suggests some of the ways the court could hold BP accountable, including helping to establish national marine sanctuaries and creating a permanent endowment to restore and study gulf species.
BP officials did not return a call seeking comment. But the company has repeatedly vowed to aggressively clean up the oil and restore the gulf, including funding a major wildlife rehabilitation program and committing $500 million to research on the effects of the spill.
The gulf region is home to at least 27 endangered or threatened species. The rig explosion killed 11 workers and spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil. More than 600 sea turtles were found dead and an additional 456 were found alive but soiled with oil. More than 4,300 oiled birds have been found, more than half of them dead.
Long-term effects on wildlife are unclear. Much of the oil remains dispersed deep under the sea. Scientists are unsure how this and 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant will alter the fate of marine creatures and habitats.
Wednesday's lawsuit, filed in federal court in New Orleans, is likely to be rolled into the massive "multidistrict litigation" action, in which one federal judge handles proceedings that are combined into one unified process, said Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who is representing the plaintiffs.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over more than 300 cases related to the spill, including personal injury and death cases and loss claims from individuals, businesses and governments. Barbier is also handling environmental cases, including a suit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking $19 billion in civil penalties under the Clean Water Act.
Justice Department officials have filed papers indicating they will probably file suit on behalf of the American public, possibly for violations of the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act. The government is pursuing a criminal investigation as well.
By the end of 2011, BP hopes to sell off $30 billion in assets to raise money to cover its post-spill obligations. On Monday, it announced it was selling off $1.8 billion in interests in Venezuela and Vietnam.
The company has promised to put $20 billion into a fund to handle legal claims. People receiving a payout from the fund waive their right to sue.