Lawsuit challenges Lake Tahoe fireworks
January 13, 2014
A Zephyr Cove couple is challenging the ability of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority to put on fireworks shows without a permit to discharge debris or pollutants into the alpine lake.
The allegation is that, without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, its twice-annual fireworks shows are violating the Clean Water Act.
Joan and Joseph Truxler filed the lawsuit against Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and Pyro Spectaculars North in federal court in Sacramento in November.
Joan Truxler was unhappy with trash that washed up on PineWild Beach and other East Shore beaches after a July 4 fireworks show.
Over the next month and a half, Truxler reportedly picked up enough fireworks debris to cover 60 square feet. Some of the pieces had Pyro Spectaculars North's name on them, according to the lawsuit.
Truxler reportedly observed similar debris problems after a Labor Day fireworks show Sept. 1.
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The lawsuit briefly mentions surface water sampling done around the fireworks barges in 2001 and 2002. That sampling found higher levels of perchlorate and nitrate after the fireworks shows, but the lawsuit does not raise arguments about their potential to harm public health or the environment.
Mike Lozeau, a Bay Area attorney representing the Truxlers, said they decided to file the lawsuit after contacting local agencies with concerns and getting no response, other than from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which Lozeau said has no authority to regulate discharges into the lake.
"The goal is to make sure that the mitigations for the fireworks shows are as robust as possible. They do try to pick up the trash, but obviously they haven't been able to get it all," Lozeau said.
The lawsuit alleges identifiable point sources need a permit to discharge pollutants into navigable bodies of water.
"The federal law kicks in whenever you have a point source," Lozeau said. "Here you have hundreds of mortar pipes that shoot things off into the lake, so it's pretty obvious you have a discharge triggering the permit requirement. For whatever reason, the agencies haven't paid much attention to that."
The Truxler family is not trying to end the fireworks shows, but wants them to go through proper permitting channels with adequate public oversight, Lozeau said.
"People would have the option to chime in on whether they should even get a permit, or if conditions are sufficient to protect the lake, whether from trash or pollutants."
The entities equipped to issue such permits are Nevada Department of Environmental Protection for events in Nevada and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board for events in California, according to Lozeau.
"They haven't issued permits for fireworks into water yet, but that doesn't affect the legality. The Clean Water Act decides that," he said.
Such permits for fireworks on bodies of water are apparently rare. According to Lozeau and others, including Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, the only jurisdiction requiring permits in California or Nevada is the San Diego Water Board. The requirement there is being challenged, but has not been overturned.
Carol Chaplin, executive director of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, declined to comment on the litigation.
"I will say we are concerned because the fireworks shows are iconic events on the South shore that we know attract a lot of visitation and have economic impact," she said.
Chaplin described the cleanup process after fireworks shows as "extensive" and involving both netting from boats and divers in the water.
"The lake is important to us. It is at the center of our destination, and it's important for us to be cognizant of debris that could be in the water," she said.
At a settlement conference several months ago, the Truxlers were not interested in a resolution outside of the litigation they decided to file, Chaplin said.
Jeff Cowen, a spokesman for Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said it has worked collaboratively with Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and Pyro Spectaculars North to ensure environmental protections were in place after community complaints.
"While there have been cleanup plans in place for many years, no one recalls seeing an outfall like this from a fireworks show in the region. Lastly, TRPA will continue to monitor the displays and take action if necessary to protect Lake Tahoe," Cowen said.
The lawsuit notes that violators of the Clean Water Act can face civil penalties up to $37,500 per day per violation.