Two months. Exactly two months remain until the 4th of July holiday. We’ll take time off to enjoy the company of our friends and loved ones, fly our American flags and light the barbeque. And then the fireworks. What’s more American than buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fireworks from China, watching their explosive display, and then sitting in traffic for an hour? Sarcasm aside, 4th of July fireworks are, for most people, synonymous with the holiday. It’s tradition.
Not surprisingly, recent attempts to bring this tradition into compliance with existing laws has been characterized by many as a fight against liberty itself. There hasn’t been an honest conversation about the topic. Instead, what we’ve seen is politicians like City Councilmember Carl Demaio and Assemblymember Diane Harkey wrapping themselves in the flag to cut off debate and castigate opponents. To hear them tell it, we liberal, socialist, pocket-lining, environmentalist attorneys are trying to put an end to these fireworks shows, right after we steal your piece of apple pie. Then we’ll have to skip straight from July 3rd to 5th and tell the Chinese to save those fireworks for their parties. The truth? You can keep your apple pie and most of your fireworks too.
But there is a fine line between tradition and uncompromising doggedness. If fireworks are a tradition worth continuing, why can’t we simply conduct them legally? This is the real question environmentalists want answered.
Moreover, if tradition truly is the compelling reason not to study or regulate fireworks, then displays on New Year’s Eve, during Sea World’s Summer Nights, and at sporting events shouldn’t get a free pass. On the other hand, if we shouldn’t be regulating fireworks simply because they don’t pose a significant threat to the environment, we need evidence to that effect. Once we take the opportunity to look at fireworks objectively, without the Independence Day bias, emerging studies from numerous federal and state agencies, scientists, and wildlife experts show that they aren’t harmless.
The problem then becomes, if there’s some public admission that fireworks aren’t the benign display we’ve always regarded them as, it implicates all shows, even those culturally sacred displays on the 4th. This may be the impetus for the illogical all-or-nothing position.
San Diego has been the epicenter of this debate, and continues to be a major battleground. Right now, the City of San Diego is considering amendments to its municipal code to allow fireworks shows on public property without studying their environmental impacts. Anyone watching last week’s City Council meeting witnessed passionate advocacy from those for and against the amendments.. What you didn’t see, however, is a discussion about environmental impacts. That type of discourse seems to be something the City will do anything to avoid.
Thus far, Mayoral spokesperson Alex Roth is the only person in the mayor’s office willing to engage openly on this topic. Our views about impacts lie at polar opposites, but at least there exists the humble beginning of engagement. City staff have otherwise completely shut the public — not just environmentalists — out of the process. Ironically, the City’s municipal code amendments are offered in response to CERF‘s lawsuit against the City for this systematic lack of public environmental review.
Last year, before the City’s self-imposed censorship, Mayor Sanders commented on another agency’s attempt to regulate fireworks displays. He said of the Regional Water Board’s (now substantially revised) fireworks permit: “This is killing an ant with a sledgehammer.” His words may come back to haunt him in light of the City’s latest tactic.
So in two months, when all fireworks shows in the City are potentially on the chopping block because of legal challenges to the City’s last-minute ordinance shuffling, consider this: if it wasn’t in the name of Independence Day tradition, would we be condoning this wholesale regulatory evasion? If the answer is no, let’s exercise some of those highly regarded rights we celebrate on Independence Day. Because as it turns out, debate also happens to be a great American tradition.
Livia Borak is an attorney at Coast Law Group, LLP in Encinitas where she focuses on a variety of environmental issues representing various non-profit organizations. She’s a former San Diego Coastkeeper staff attorney and member of the third-place CityBeat Trivia night team By Rolland’s Beard. She serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters and is legal advisor to the environmental nonprofit Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. She makes killer chocolate chip vegan cookies.