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Fireworks Under Fire

For the first time, Laguna Beach must obtain a permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board to ignite July 4th fireworks offshore.
Partly due to a lawsuit filed in San Diego by the La Jolla-based Coast Law Group, municipal offshore fireworks celebrations in San Diego and parts of south Orange County must report the specifics of their pyrotechnic displays, such as amount of residual debris falling into the ocean and type of clean-up, to the regional water board. The intent of the five-year permit process is to ensure that over-ocean displays do not degrade water quality.
“This is the first phase,” said Bob Morris, a senior engineer with the regional water board.  “We want an indicator of whether or not [fireworks companies’] best management practices are sufficient to protect water quality.”
Two key sites the board will be watching, said Morris, are San Diego Bay and Mission Bay where a multitude of shows from the Padres games, the San Diego Symphony pops concerts and Sea World are shot over two mostly contained bodies of ocean water each year.  If damage isn’t detected there, displays over the open ocean probably aren’t in jeopardy, said Morris, unless it affects a specially designated area. Laguna is a special case, Morris said, because the fireworks cover a state marine reserve (SMR) beneath Heisler Park.
“We all know something comes down,” said Will Holoman, water-quality analyst for Laguna Beach.  “The regional board has never dealt with fireworks, nobody has ever dealt with them.  Nobody even knows what’s going out there. Nobody knows what ends up on the ocean floor.”
“What is it, how much is it and does it have an effect on the ocean?  That has never really been looked into with any detail.”
The Coast Group lawsuit was filed last June for the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation against the City of San Diego, the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation and Promote La Jolla.  Demands call for a ban on the July 4 fireworks display, specifically at La Jolla Cove.  The claim alleges that the display’s debris harms sensitive coastal environments.
To continue Laguna’s offshore fireworks display from Heisler Park’s Monument Point this summer, the city must file for an exemption by completing the permit process.  As part of its request for a permit, the city argued that the one-time 20-minute public Independence Day exhibition over the ocean potentially prevents fires from now-banned private displays.
“Although Heisler Park is near an area of special biological significance, it is also the only location in town that provides a safe…distance from homes, businesses and more than 12,000 acres of open space,” stated the city’s letter requesting an exemption, reiterating that 360 homes were destroyed by fire here in 1993.   The letter also averred that the annual runoff from a structure fire or wildfire is potentially more polluting to the ocean than a 20-minute, one-time display, adding that the ocean water quality in Laguna receives high ratings compared to other beach cities in the state.
Ironically, the tidal zone’s designation as an area of special biological significance (ASBS) enabled the city to qualify for a $2.5 million grant from the state Water Resources Control Board for park improvements now in their final stage.  It may also become the ultimate reason a ban is implemented, according to a City Council report. This year’s offshore display will discharge 352 pounds of pyrotechnic explosive powder over the Heisler Park State Marine Reserve, which will be scrutinized for potential water-polluting debris.
“If we detected it’s causing any kind of harm, obviously we have to stop,” said Holoman.  “I think the monitoring is going to answer a lot of these questions.” Holoman said the tides, water currents and winds will likely move the debris to eliminate any cumulative effects.
Clean Water Now Coalition of Laguna Beach supports a ban against the Independence Day display, the coalition’s president, Roger von Butow, said in a letter to the water board. “When and where endangered and/or threatened species are present the protection should be more prominent and strident,” von Butow wrote. “If the public fireworks displays performed presently are within SMR and/or ASBS then they should sunset, be phased out, that is cease. Period.”
The off-shore display permit is tentative but is expected to be approved by the regional water board before July 4, said Holoman.  The permit is subject to periodic reviews.  Due to short notice, all coastal cities are deemed exempt from the ban this year while permit requirements go into effect, he said.
The purpose of the permit will eventually determine how much of the residual byproduct is cumulative, particularly with certain particulates such as aluminum, chlorine, lithium, nitrates and titanium.
If harmful effects are found in the water, the city has suggested using a barge to catch some of the debris, which would increase the costs of the $26,000 show, half of which was donated through fundraisers by the Laguna Board of Realtors.  The explosive display has been orchestrated by Pyro Spectaculars, Inc. (PSI), for the past 22 of its 23-year history in Laguna.  The company also engineers Macy’s July 4 Show in New York City and Irvine Cove’s celebration, among 400 others.
“PSI, of course, has an interest in seeing that public fireworks displays for expressions of national pride and entertainment continue,” Gary Brown, attorney for Pyro Spectaculars, Inc., stated in a letter last month to the regional water board.  “But we are mindful, too, of the value to us all of clean water, enthusiastic communities and even spirited debate on such matters.”

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