Byline: Taylor Hill
SAN DIEGO — At the Jan. 10 Board of Port Commissioners meeting, fireworks show organizers in San Diego County were dealt a setback in the ongoing battle to keep annual pyrotechnics displays on the waterfront for Independence Day and New Year’s Eve.
Port of San Diego commissioners voted not to take on permit responsibilities for San Diego fireworks displays, such as the annual Big Bay Boom fireworks show. Instead, they said, the permit fees, cleanup efforts and possible water quality monitoring requirements were the responsibility of individual fireworks show organizers.
The topic was brought before the commission by Big Bay Boom executive producer Sandy Purdon, in an effort to alleviate much of the new burden put on waterfront fireworks show organizers by new San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board permit requirements.
At a meeting in May 2011, the regional water quality board ordered that a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit be issued that places responsibility on fireworks show organizers for any discharges and pollutants from fireworks debris landing in the water.
On top of the mandatory $2,000 permit fee required for each fireworks show organizer, the permit requires that show producers develop a Fireworks Best Management Practices Plan, log and track fireworks debris, and complete post-event forms reporting on debris seen during the show.
The new permit is required in addition to the Coast Guard Marine Event Permit, Coastal Development Permit (through the California Environmental Quality Act process) and approval from the San Diego Fire Department that each show organizer must get before any fireworks can be launched.
During discussion, commissioners and deputy port attorney Ellen Gross raised concerns about what level of liability the Port of San Diego would assume if it were to become the sole permit holder for the shows, and wondered about the future water quality monitoring requirements that have not yet been made clear by San Diego’s Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The NPDES permit was first issued for the 2011 Big Bay Boom show. A total of 16 vessels were in charge of cleanup, and Best Management Practices were adopted.
While the current draft of the permit from the board does not include costly water monitoring, Gross said the water quality board could add new monitoring requirements as early as 2013, when the board’s staff is scheduled to evaluate the permit data.
Purdon came to the commissioners to see if a general permit could be obtained and held by the Port of San Diego, in order to assist event organizers such as the USS Midway Museum, the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops Concert and the Big Bay Boom. But port commissioners were not ready to take responsibility for requirements they said have still not made fully clear by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“We’re trying to figure out a master strategy for this, and we’re still dealing with it piece by piece,” said Commissioner Scott Peters, referring to a failed attempt to gain a permit for Chula Vista fireworks last year. “We still don’t know what the monitoring requirements are going to be, and we don’t know what they (the water control board members) want.”
Gross expressed similar apprehension. “As a tenant, I would want the port to take it over, too. But as a lawyer for the port, I do not want us to have the general permit (responsibility),” she said. “We really need to reach out and start looking for different ways to do fireworks displays, rather than perhaps the port being the sole permit holder or putting it all (in the way of permit responsibilities) on the tenants.”
The port commissioners recommended that conversations with water quality control board members continue, and that possible third-party management options be investigated, to potentially alleviate liability issues and clear up who would be legally responsible for meeting the new permit requirements.
The added burden of the water quality control board’s new requirements has Purdon, San Diego Symphony Pops concert fireworks organizers, the San Diego Port Tenants Association, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and many others looking for relief from the new rules.
While the port awaits word on what the monitoring requirements will be for the new NPDES permit, a petition signed by members of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and other fireworks supporters has been sent to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to put an end to the scrutiny San Diego fireworks shows are subject to, in comparison to other parts of the state.
Coast Law Group attorney Marco Gonzalez, representing the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF), has been leading an effort since 2002 to reign in waterfront fireworks shows, and has attempted to show detrimental effects he believes the events can have on wildlife and the environment.
“Least terns don’t like them, and marine mammals don’t like them,” Gonzalez told port officials. “They’re no good for water quality. SeaWorld conducted a multi-year study that found statistically significant violations of state water quality standards directly attributable to the largest shows put on by SeaWorld — specifically their Fourth of July show.
“If you think the Big Bay Boom show, with its four barges, won’t have an effect on water quality, you’re kidding yourself,” Gonzalez said.
The Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation has sent in its own petition to the water quality control board, asking for even more stringent requirements for shows. Gonzalez has stated that all fireworks shows, due to what he believes are their pollution dangers and adverse affects on the environment, should go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process — and, in a recent case, the Superior Court of California ruled that special-use and park-use permits issued by the city of San Diego, covering everything from weddings to picnics, are also subject to CEQA review. The implications of that ruling could mean that everything from a 25,000-participant Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon to a group bonfire could eventually be subject to strict environmental review.
But Sharon Cloward, president of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, argued that CEQA’s original intent back in 1970 was not for the purpose of controlling special events, but to control development.
Currently, San Diego hosts around 500 special events a year and issues 20,000 park-use permits. If the CEQA process is required for these events, applicants will have to pay for the city’s Development Services Department to review permits, with a wait time of up to six months.
The commissioners requested that port staff to come back within 60 days with feedback from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and a proposal on how to move forward with the fireworks permitting process.
“If the port doesn’t do the general permit, I think little conventions and smaller shows might suffer,” Cloward said. “I don’t know how many groups want to pay $2,000 to have an event.”
Cloward added that the 2012 Big Bay Boom, hosted by the Armed Services YMCA, is scheduled to adhere to the new NPDES permit requirements, but will most likely not be able to handle the permitting burden after this year.
“They can’t put that liability on themselves every year,” Cloward said.