The water quality board with authority over coastal waters from Laguna Beach to the Mexican border voted 6-0 to require permits for over-the-water fireworks displays, including the city’s annual Fourth of July show.
The new regulation approved Wednesday is the first in the nation to regulate fireworks as a pollution source subject to the federal Clean Water Act, according to David Barker, a 35-year supervising engineer with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“The show will go on,” said Laguna Beach’s City Manager John Pietig, adding that the $26,000 display was already in the budget and a contract awarded to Pyrospectaculars.
The new regulation requires cleaning fireworks debris from the area, something already required under a 2003 state law, but falls short of requiring water quality monitoring.
Barker said, “This is a first term permit so it’s kind of stepping into fireworks regulations and trying to do so in a way without heavy handed regulation. It’s bringing the discharge into regulation. No water monitoring is required at this time, but as we get info on where the events are held and the masses of fireworks being released, we can come back and re-examine what shows should be doing the monitoring.”
For now, the city must file a notice of intent to hold the fireworks display by June 10, then water regulators will grant a $1,500 permit. Even though the Laguna Beach show is launched from Monument Point at Heisler Park and over a state marine reserve, the regulations will be no stronger than for other shows since the Independence Day celebration is an isolated event, according to Barker.
“If there were any problems they would be very short in duration,” he said.
The federal Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, also requires permits for pollutants discharged into bodies of water, but no cities conducting fireworks displays ever obtained them, and enforcement was absent until environmental groups began threatening lawsuits, in 2005 initially targeting Sea World’s nightly displays and then municipal fireworks shows around San Diego.
Laguna Beach sought an exemption to the regulation in November, but ended up supporting a permit process that would take case by case exemptions into account, said David Shissler, the city’s director of water quality.
A draft of the order called for clean up crews to gather floating debris from spent fireworks using hand held fishnets or pool skimmers.
Asked if the city was prepared to meet this demand, Shissler said, “We will do whatever is required by the permit. We’ve been monitoring that water for over 10 years now and the quality is really good.”
Private communities such as Irvine Cove and Emerald Bay, which put on their own fireworks displays from barges, are also subject to the new regulation.
Jim Shubsda, head of the Irvine Cove home owners’ association, said this year’s show is slated to go on as usual. “There has been more concern about the costs involved this year,” he said. “The prices have gone up for fireworks and the barge. It’s not insignificant,” though he declined to provide specifics.
“If we have to do clean up, we have to do it. We certainly don’t want to hurt the marine environment. That is what living on the coast is all about, is looking out for water quality and things like that,” he said.
Officials for the Emerald Bay Association could not immediately be reached for comment.
Roger Butow, founder of Laguna Beach-based Clean Water Now!, which organizes beach clean-ups in alliance with the state Coastal Commission, thinks the regulation doesn’t go far enough. “Just as we adopted a zero tolerance policy for sewage spills, we should have the same policy in this matter.
“I don’t think that requiring a $1500 fee to push paper constitutes Clean Water Act compliance, nor will the monitoring be effective. The environmental damage will have already occurred and cascaded throughout the marine habitat ecosystems. The approach should be the prohibition of contaminants, not post facto necropsies,” he said.
Ocean advocate and Laguna Beach resident Mike Beanan suggested incorporating laser light shows instead into fireworks displays to lessen pollution.