Fears that major fireworks shows may be polluting the Pacific Ocean could dampen pyrotechnics displays along the California coast.
A threatened lawsuit by an environmental group prompted SeaWorld San Diego to scrap its fireworks shows for the rest of the year, and beach cities are wondering if heightened scrutiny by state regulators will make fireworks for the Fourth of July and other traditional celebrations too expensive to support.
Environmentalists "are pushing the envelope and, yes, it will be troublesome for any agency firing over water," said Dusty Crane, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which shoots fireworks off Marina del Rey for Independence Day, the annual Christmas boat parade and New Year's Eve.
Any new fireworks regulations are "definitely going to make it more difficult, and it's going to be more costly, and it could end them," Crane said.
Federal and state environmental regulators said they know of no previous regulatory efforts regarding fireworks and water pollution, aside from a 2003 study of Lake Tahoe that resulted in no action.
"It's an unusual circumstance," said Nancy Woo, associate director of the water division for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office. "On first blush, I was, like, 'Whoa, that's a good question.' "
SeaWorld amusement park has more than 120 fireworks displays annually, shot off a barge in Mission Bay.
San Diego Coastkeeper has grown increasingly concerned about the displays' cumulative effect on the water and the sediment in the bay, said Marco Gonzalez, attorney for the environmental organization.
On June 26, Coastkeeper notified SeaWorld that it intended to sue the park for violating the federal Clean Water Act, alleging that its fireworks displays shower harmful heavy metals and chemicals into the bay, and that it never applied for a state permit to discharge such pollutants into the water.
"The incremental impacts from long-term fireworks displays are something we know nothing about," Gonzalez said.
SeaWorld decided Aug. 20 to suspend its fireworks and plans to apply for a discharge permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board by month's end, said SeaWorld spokesman Dave Koontz. He said the park does not agree with the allegations or the contention that a permit is required under the Clean Water Act.
"But in light of the fact they intended to file a lawsuit against us, we decided the most appropriate course of action was to suspend the fireworks," he said.
Koontz said the park takes steps to deal with pollution, sending out a crew in a boat after each display to pick up paper debris. The next morning, workers scour the beaches off SeaWorld and Fiesta Island for debris that may have washed ashore.
Additionally, he said, the California Coastal Commission has required the park to monitor the waters of Mission Bay for the past five years, and the data show that the fireworks have not had an impact. "We feel we're extremely responsible in how we conduct our fireworks operation," he said.
Fireworks also release metals such as copper -- which creates the color green -- and chemicals such as perchlorate, which is used in detonation.
John Robertus, executive officer of the regional water board, said a review of SeaWorld's permit application would take six months to a year. As part of that review, the agency will investigate the bay's water and sediments to ensure that pollutants from the fireworks are not affecting the ecosystem and will look at the effects of the sound on birds that nest in Mission Bay, a stopover on the Pacific Flyway.
If the agency determines that fireworks over the ocean should be regulated, Robertus envisions a multitiered approach. Cities and organizations that shoot off fireworks once or twice a year might receive a waiver; a general state permit might be issued to those who sponsor several shows a year; and entities that hold them frequently, such as SeaWorld, might be required to apply for a permit that includes extensive environmental monitoring.
"The SeaWorld problem is perhaps a little more unique than other fireworks displays because it occurs 120 times on an annual basis," Robertus said, "and it takes place over the water in Mission Bay, and Mission Bay does not have good circulation and it's quite shallow."
Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, said his agency also could require those who put on fireworks displays to obtain a coastal development permit.
Though regulatory agencies had not considered fireworks in the past, he said, they ought to, given the increased knowledge about the cumulative impact of pollutants. "We have to elevate our level of concern," he said.
Coastkeeper hopes the action brings increased scrutiny to all fireworks celebrations in the state.
"The Clean Water Act is very clear: Any discharge of pollutants