* Group says US improperly approved offshore operations
* It says Interior Department ignored environmental laws
* Oil exploration harms marine mammals, group says
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, May 14 U.S. Interior Secretary Ken
Salazar improperly approved offshore oil operations in the Gulf
of Mexico without regard to possible harm to marine mammals, an
environmental group said on Friday in a legal notice.
The Center for Biological Diversity said it plans to sue
Salazar and the Interior Department's Minerals Management
Service (MMS) for failing to get environmental permits required
by two environmental laws -- the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and the Endangered Species Act.
The group said the Interior Department has approved three
lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300
drilling operations since Salazar took office in 2009 without
the required environmental permits meant to protect endangered
whales and other marine mammals.
"The Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management
Service are creating a lawless zone in the Gulf of Mexico when
it comes to these environmental laws," Miyoko Sakashita, the
center's oceans director, said by telephone. "The oil companies
really get to call the shots."
The group filed a notice of intent to sue Salazar and MMS,
giving them 60 days to respond, as required by the Endangered
Species Act. The Interior Department had no immediate comment.
The environmental group's action came as President Barack
Obama on Friday announced that he has directed Salazar to carry
out a "top-to-bottom reform" of the MMS, the federal agency
that oversees offshore drilling.
"For too long, for a decade or more, there's been a cozy
relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency
that permits them to drill," Obama said.
"That cannot and will not happen anymore," Obama added.
Obama also expressed "anger and frustration" over the April
20 BP (BP.L) offshore oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers
and triggered what may be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In response to the BP spill, Salazar on Tuesday announced a
plan to divide MMS to separate the collection of oil royalties
from safety inspection duties.
In a joint statement with the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, the Interior Department said on Friday
it will review environmental procedures at MMS regarding the
impact of offshore oil and gas development.
Whales and other marine mammals in the Gulf can suffer
hearing loss from the loud noise generated by seismic
exploration surveys used to search for oil, the center said in
its document. These surveys can also disturb feeding and
breeding behavior and mask communication between individual
whales and dolphins, according to the center.
Noise from drilling operations can displace whales from
feeding areas and offshore oil activities -- such as pollution,
marine debris, oil spills and vessels striking mammals -- can
also harm marine mammals, the center said.
(Editing by Will Dunham)