* BP sued over incineration of surface oil in Gulf
* Complaint cites violations of Endangered Species Act
* Wildlife expert says protective steps being implemented
NEW ORLEANS, June 30 (Reuters) - Environmental groups filed suit against BP Plc (BP.N) (BP.L) on Wednesday seeking to halt controlled burnings of spilled oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico because they say endangered sea turtles are being burned alive in the process.
The lawsuit accuses the British energy giant of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act and terms of its lease with the federal government for the deep-sea drilling rig that exploded on April 20, unleashing the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The suit says rare turtles protected under the Endangered Species Act are being inadvertently burned to death when spill containment crews corral large patches of oil on the surface of the Gulf and set the petroleum ablaze to dispose of it.
Those deaths, the suit says, amount to illegal “takings” of endangered turtles. A check of federal records has found no indication that BP ever applied for special government permits that would allow for “incidental takes” of protected species under such circumstances, according to the lawsuit.
Among the creatures most at risk from the incineration of oil at sea are the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle, the smallest known sea turtles in the world and among the rarest.
IN HARM‘S WAY
Private boat captains chartered for wildlife rescue missions in the Gulf said in affidavits filed with the lawsuits that many young sea turtles have tended to congregate among oil blobs floating in the water, apparently unable to distinguish between the oil and mats of seaweed that provide natural shelter on the surface of the Gulf.
The turtles are then presumably swept up and unable to escape when shrimp boats contracted for cleanup operations are used to drag fire-resistant booms to encircle the floating oil before it is set ablaze.
The government says at least 275 controlled burns have been conducted in the Gulf since the spill, removing about 10 million gallons (37.8 million liters) of oil from the open water.
The lawsuit seeks a U.S. court order to immediately halt the burnings until steps can be taken that allow rescue teams to work with the incineration crews to remove as many turtles as possible from areas slated for burning before oil is ignited.
A BP spokesman declined to comment on the litigation.
Dr. Michael Ziccardi, a California-based wildlife expert and veterinarian overseeing sea turtle and marine mammal rescue operations in the Gulf, has said separately that such precautionary measures were recently being put in place, with the full cooperation of the U.S. Coast Guard.
A spokeswoman for one of the four plaintiffs in the suit, the Animal Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco, said a hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order was set for Friday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
Ziccardi, a professor at the University of California at Davis who heads the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said no turtle deaths from oil burnings have been confirmed but acknowledged that some unknown number of turtles had “likely” perished in the process. Ziccardi is not a party to the litigation.
He said the controlled burns of oil at sea are still widely regarded as preferable to letting the slick wash into sensitive coastal areas where it can do greater environmental harm.
Joining the Animal Legal Defense Fund as plaintiffs in the case against BP, 2:10-cv-01866-KDE-DEK, are the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Writing and reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Sandra Maler