Fireworks Show Sued for Illegal Pollution

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By Daniel Pineda

On Jan. 31, John Morris, Long Beach restaurant owner and creator of the fundraiser Big Bang on the Bay, appeared in federal court after being sued for illegally polluting Alamitos Bay with its annual fireworks show.

First created in 2011, Big Bang on the Bay includes a block party next to Boathouse on the Bay, the restaurant Morris manages; flyovers; the end of a sailing regatta; and, of course, the bayside fireworks show as the highlight. The festivities of Big Bang on the Bay also help raise money for nonprofit organizations and charities in Long Beach, including but not limited to:

  • Autism Partnership Foundation.
  • Children Today Inc.
  • LBCC Captain Rosa Memorial Scholarship.

The civil lawsuit against Morris and the entity Naples Restaurant Group, which operates Boathouse on the Bay, was first filed in November 2021 by the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF), a group of environmentalists dedicated to protecting California’s coasts.

According to CERF’s lawsuit against Morris, the annual fireworks show held by Big Bang on the Bay is in violation of the Clean Water Act by discharging fireworks debris into Alamitos Bay without a permit.

“Typical firework constituents include, but are not limited to, aluminum, antimony, barium, carbon, calcium, chlorine, cesium, copper, iron, potassium, lithium, magnesium, oxidizers, including nitrates, chlorates and perchlorates, phosphorus, sodium-sulfur, strontium, titanium and zinc” CERF’s lawsuit said.

The lawsuit continued: “Many of the enumerated pollutants are particularly harmful to aquatic wildlife and humans alike. Firework discharges can directly impact multiple beneficial uses of receiving water. Releases of copper can cause toxicity for organisms living on the bay bottom while fireworks debris can cause a condition of a nuisance for people participating in recreational activities.”

This is not the first time John Morris and Big Bang on the Bay have been sued for the fireworks show. In 2015, Morris and Big Bang were sued for pollution, which ended with Morris agreeing to conduct water quality studies before and after shows.

And just last year, the Los Angeles Region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (LAQCB) issued an order requiring a monitoring report, a best management practices report and an alternative study exploring other locations or types of fireworks – all due after last year’s show with Big Bang on the Bay.

Morris stated that he has complied with those orders.

The lawsuit against Big Bang on the Bay was being held in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles. During the trial, witnesses testified about their experience during the previous Big Bang on the Bay fireworks show at Alamitos Bay.

According to Joseph Geever and his wife Gordana Kajer, both of which are members of CERF, they remember watching the fireworks show on their canoe, when suddenly debris from the fireworks began to fall into the water around them.

“I was shocked,” Kajer said in court. ”It was a constant array of (embers) hitting the water.”

On top of that, Livia Beaudin, one of the leading attorneys representing CERF, stated that Long Beach residents who live near the Alamitos bay show have collected debris from the fireworks and noticed residual effects in the air and water.

“Alamitos Bay is intended to be used for recreational purposes and it’s not fit for that use because of the debris and discharges,” Beaudin said. “This is something that isn’t necessary, right? It’s purely for entertainment purposes.”

Morris and the Naples Restaurant Group have denied the allegations made against them by CERF, saying that they have received permits every year from city and state governmental agencies, and followed orders from the LAQCB for monitoring and regulating discharges for the previous fireworks show he hosted in July 2022.

“The organizers of the Big Bang on the Bay fireworks event are committed to preserving the beneficial uses of the outdoor environment for the public users in Alamitos Bay,” a firm contracted for the event wrote in an August 2022 report to the regional water board. “Based on the results of water testing and debris searches, the Big Bang on the Bay event did not have a measurable deleterious effect on receiving waters within the event area.”

According to the consulting firm who analyzed Big Bang on the Bay, there are also many “complicating factors” for searching fireworks debris and testing the water. The factors include:

  • Winds and water currents.
  • Lack of light.
  • Other boats in the water.

The two-day federal court case concluded on Wednesday, Feb 1, and awaits the final ruling. The ruling of this lawsuit could change the way fireworks displays in Long Beach are handled when produced over bodies of water. The ruling could also have a ripple effect across neighboring regions, such as San Diego, San Clemente, Manhattan Beach and others.

Aside from CERF, other environmental officials have also recently taken note of the potential damage fireworks shows potentially bring to marine environments. At a June California Coastal Commission meeting, some commissioners called for more research on the issue – but noted the commission didn’t have the resources to dedicate much time to the issue, and didn’t yet have clear evidence of significant harm.

The final decision of the federal court case rests upon the U.S. District Court Judge Mark C. Scarisi, who sits on the Central California District Bench. As for when Scarisi will make the final decision, is yet to be known.

Also, in a Facebook video after the trial ended, John Morris acknowledged that he did not receive a permit for his fireworks show from the federal government. But rather, he received permits from California Coastal Commission, the LAQCB and the city of Long Beach.

“I gave a short closing statement at the very end, and I got very emotional,” said Morris, “This event is very big for me, very big for everyone in the community.”

Morris continued: “I just didn’t have this one piece of paper from the federal government. And there’s no way to get it.”

John Morris also stated in his Facebook video that, despite this lawsuit, he hopes to see Big Bang on the Bay light up the night sky once again in the distant future.

“We started the permit process this week for the Big Bang on the Bay 2023,” Morris said at the end of his Facebook video. “So hopefully, we’ll see you real soon.”

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