Conservationists and wildlife experts have accused BP of indiscriminately burning alive endangered sea turtles and other marine creatures in 1,300-square-kilometre "burn fields," as it tries to dispose of oil from its leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
The killing of the turtles - which once teetered on the brink of extinction - has outraged environmentalists, and could put BP into even deeper legal jeopardy.
Environmental organizations are demanding that BP stop blocking rescue of the turtles, and are pressing the Obama administration to halt the burning, and look at prosecuting the oil company and its contractors for killing endangered species during the cleanup operation. Harming or killing a sea turtle carries fines of up to $50,000.
"It is criminal and it is cruel and they need to be held accountable," said Carole Allen, Gulf office director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. "There should not be another lighting of a fire of any kind until people have gone in there and looked for turtles."
Government scientists are also pressing BP to post wildlife experts as turtle spotters on its cleanup vessels to try to rescue the animals before the oil is lit - or at the very least give them access to the burn fields.
"One can't just ride through an area where they are burning and expect to be safe while looking for turtles. We don't expect that, but we would like to access those areas where we suspect there may be turtles," said Blair Witherington, a sea turtle research scientist at Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
More than 425 turtles are known to have died in the spill zone since April 30, according to the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agency.
Conservationists say the losses could imperil the long-term survival of the creatures. All five species of turtles found in the Gulf are endangered or threatened: the Kemp's Ridley most of all.
But in a video posted on YouTube, skipper Mike Ellis accuses BP of chasing away a boat of conservationists trying to rescue turtles caught in the oil.
Guardian news service
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