On May 11, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Diego Region voted unanimously to issue a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, costing $1,452, in order to allow organizers to lawfully discharge pollutants present in fireworks to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements.
“The fireworks at the Cove are completely put on by donations,” said Deborah Marengo, director of the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation (LJCFF). “The reality is that we’re going to have to make a decision about where this money will come from.”
The permit requirement, effective June 1, applies to displays over any body of water in the region and requires organizers to collect, remove and manage debris created by the fireworks. It does not, however, require water quality and sediment monitoring to determine the extent to which the pollutants actually contribute to the degradation of surface water health.
Environmental groups contend that fireworks contribute chemicals and other pollutants to surface waters, and though the move was seen as an important step in recognizing that issue, the general consensus among those who lobbied for regulation was that the plan doesn’t go far enough.
San Diego Coastkeeper, which has been involved in lobbying for a permit requirement that mandates monitoring of coastal waters during fireworks displays, had hoped to see a more stringent plan — like the temporary permit that was approved last September, which required monitoring of contaminants in water and sediment — put in place.
Gabrielle Solmer, Coastkeeper’s interim executive director, said the organization’s main complaint about the new permit requirement is the lack of required monitoring.
“Frankly, we don’t know all of the impacts of fireworks on our waterways,” she said. “Studies have been done that show there is an impact, so the science is clear, but we don’t know the significance of that impact or what the best way to mitigate it is. You would think that monitoring would be the most important thing to include in a permit of this type.”
Solmer said La Jolla is the area that environmental organizations are most concerned about. Defined as an Area of Special Biological Significance (ASBS), the La Jolla coast, Solmer said, is “designated by the state as having rich marine life and exceptional water quality.”
“We’re concerned that we have this activity that has known pollutants so close to an ASBS,” she said. “It’s important that we know the impact on both water and sediment quality.”
Monitoring is done at SeaWorld, where regular fireworks displays throughout the year spell the need for greater attention. Monitoring there has been ongoing since 2007.
David Barker, a water board engineer, said the chief objective of the board in adopting the permit requirement was to give event organizers a way to lawfully discharge pollutants without the threat of legal action.
“We do not want to prohibit these events,” he said. “What we do want is to reduce or eliminate the pollutants that get into our water.”
Barker said the board considered the importance of required monitoring, but the expense of such a requirement would unfairly jeopardize the ability of the city’s smaller events, such as the one at La Jolla Cove, to continue operating. In the end, the board decided to collect information from all area events and, based on that data, make a decision if monitoring should in fact be required in the future. Organizers are required to submit a post-event report with detailed information regarding the volume of explosives discharged, the bodies of water over which they were released and the cleanup that was involved in removing debris.
“We decided that, until we had more information on the specifics of each event, we couldn’t move forward with required monitoring,” he said. “Once we get the big picture, we can make a decision if we need that type of monitoring.”
Barker said one of the chemicals of concern contained in fireworks is perchlorate, a contaminant used in rockets, missiles, pyrotechnics, batteries and safety flares. Perchlorate has increasingly been found in groundwater, surface water and soil and is a threat to human health because of the role it plays in interfering with iodide uptake in the thyroid gland. Though fireworks may not be the main cause of the perchlorate contaminating the drinking water, Barker said the water board recognized the importance of regulating any possible sources of the chemical.
“This permit was a prudent move by the board,” he said, “given that perchlorate is found in fireworks.”
For Marengo and the LJCFF, whether or not the show will go on remains to be decided. She said the group doesn’t want to take away from the show, and they hope the extra $1,500 will not have to come from the fund used to buy the fireworks.
“At this point, we’re trying to make the community aware of the situation and that if we don’t raise the money by June 1, the show will not go on,” she said. “This is something that is a very important part of our community and has been for almost 27 years. We’re just local businesspeople trying to give the community what they want.”
For more information on La Jolla’s Fourth of July celebration or to donate to the fireworks display, visit www.lajollafireworks.org.