(Bloomberg News) The Sierra Club asked to join the lawsuit in which the U.S. government is seeking billions of dollars in fines and restoration costs from BP Plc over damages from the country's worst offshore oil spill in history.

"For too long, American taxpayers have footed the bill for polluters who destroy our water and air," Michael Brune, the Sierra Club executive director, said today in a statement. "We can't let that happen here. The oil industry must learn a lesson from this tragedy."

The U.S. sued BP and units of four other companies in December, alleging violations of federal environmental law. The London-based company may be liable for as much as $21 billion in civil fines under the federal Clean Water Act, the Sierra Club said. The government is seeking more money for cleanup and restoration costs under other laws.

More than 4.1 million barrels of crude spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in April off the Louisiana coast. The U.S. also sued Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig, and Anadarko Petroleum Corp., part owner of the BP well.

The Sierra Club today filed a motion to join the lawsuit with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington. The panel in August consolidated and sent claims against BP over spill-related damages to a federal court in New Orleans, which is handling the Justice Department case.

'Maximum Penalties' Sought

The environmental group said it wants "a seat at the table" to ensure that maximum penalties are assessed against BP and that all the money recovered goes "directly to Gulf Coast restoration," the organization said in its statement.

The Sierra Club "has an interest in ensuring that the responsible parties are held fully accountable for the damages to these natural resources and assessing maximum penalties that will deter future acts by these defendants and others," the organization said in the court filing.

The Sierra Club "can make arguments in support of the penalties that the Justice Department will not make because doing so would implicate the federal government in the disaster," according to its statement.

"The federal government is under scrutiny for approving BP's grossly inadequate oil spill response plan" and for allowing BP to "overuse damaging oil dispersants following the spill," the group said.

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