Crews working to burn oil off the Gulf of Mexico before it reaches shore may be burning something else as well: Sea turtles trapped in the slicks.
Two environmental groups on Tuesday filed formal notice of their intention to sue BP, the Coast Guard and a string of federal agencies involved in the cleanup. They contend the practice of corraling and torching oil at sea was being conducted without first adequately checking for turtles and likely claiming hundreds of them, including endangered Kemp's ridleys.
Turtle researchers and rescue crews admit they haven't recovered charred remains or witnessed turtle deaths. But they said BP's burn crews target oil clumped with huge mats of floating seaweed called sargassum that attract turtles and a host of other sea life -- sometimes in the same weed lines from which they've just pulled dozens of turtles.
``It's the most inhumane thing I have ever heard, to light that oil when there are some things out there trying to escape it,'' said Carole Allen, Gulf director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. The Texas group filed the 60-day notice to sue under the Endangered Species Act along with the Center for Biological Diversity, based in San Francisco.
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BP spokesman Toby Odone said the company could not comment on any threatened litigation. But he said after the concerns surfaced earlier this month, the company and federal response agencies agreed to ``embed'' an independent biologist to assess any potential impacts on sea turtles and suggest steps to reduce them.
``It's not absolutely clear if there is a risk to turtles,'' Odone said, but ``when this issue was raised, the response was to evaluate to see if it was a problem.''
Odone said he did not know what results that evaluation may have produced. He said rough seas from Tropical Storm Alex had at least temporarily postponed burning.
The first reports of turtles in burn zones came from a Louisiana fishing captain, Mike Ellis, who was hired to rescue sea turtles. In an interview posted on the Internet, he said the boats hired by BP were corraling oil in fire-proof booms and igniting it before surveying for sea turtles.
Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration's executive director, said rescue crews and researchers haven't been able to document turtle deaths only because they're not allowed near the fires. At the least, the groups are asking BP to allow teams to survey slicks before starting any fires.
Through Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had recovered 436 dead sea turtles from the coastline and four on the water. An additional 147 have been recovered alive, including 101 on the water.
Steiner said there is no way to tell how many turtles might have been burned alive but with the Kemp's ridley nesting season wrapping up along the Mexico and Texas coasts, thousands of breeding adults are in the Gulf working their way toward feeding grounds in the Atlantic, along with still more juveniles. Tens of thousands of hatchlings also will soon begin pouring into the Gulf from the Kemp's ridley main nesting grounds in Mexico.
Steiner said the same currents and winds that steer seaweed, fish and sea turtles through the Gulf also act on the slick, pushing poisonous oil into the same place where sea life gathers. Rescue crews pulling turtles out had watched crews burn the same drifting weed lines, which can stretch for miles, where they had been finding turtles.
``It's not a theory,'' he said. ``That's where they are. We know this.''