NEW ORLEANS, July 2 (Reuters) - Environmental groups, BP (BP.N) (BP.L) and the U.S. Coast Guard are close to agreement on measures to prevent sea turtles from being killed in controlled burns of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, one group said.
A deal would settle a lawsuit accusing BP of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act and terms of its lease with the federal government for the deep-sea well that ruptured on April 20, unleashing the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.
The four conservation groups bringing the suit amended the complaint on Thursday to add the Coast Guard as a defendant.
During negotiations on Thursday evening, lawyers for the parties reached a tentative deal on plans to keep turtles out of harm's way during the incineration of oil at sea, said Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
The environmental groups are seeking a U.S. court order to immediately halt the burnings until steps are taken to allow rescue teams to work with the incineration crews to remove as many turtles as possible from designated areas before burning.
A hearing on the proposed temporary restraining order was set for Friday morning before a federal judge in New Orleans.
"We went through the measures that we have included in our proposed order, and BP and the (Coast Guard) seemed generally amenable to all of them," Steiner said in an e-mail message to Reuters after the talks on Thursday evening.
He said lawyers for BP and the government would meet again with the environmental groups Friday to "see if the parties can reach agreement" before the hearing.
If not, Steiner said, the hearing could be postponed if the defendants agreed to suspend burnings while talks continue.
Controlled burns have been halted for the past few days due to rough weather conditions.
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.
Private boat captains chartered for wildlife rescue missions in the Gulf said in affidavits filed with the lawsuit that young sea turtles tend 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 some 10 million gallons (37.8 million liters) of oil from the open water.
BP said in documents responding to the lawsuit that "relief that plaintiffs are seeking ... is largely already being undertaken" by BP and government's oil spill command.
Joining the Turtle Island Restoration Network as plaintiffs in the case, 2:10-cv-01866-KDE-DEK, are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Doina Chiacu)