Short fuse for efforts to save Lake Tahoe’s fireworks
April 7, 2014
Can a Clean Water Act lawsuit end the long-running Fourth of July and Labor Day fireworks shows at Lake Tahoe, one of the nation's most heavily protected bodies of water?
At an emergency meeting Thursday, the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority decided to hold out hope for seven more days to see if a pending lawsuit against its fireworks shows can be settled.
If not, LTVA said it will have to pull the plug on the shows, starting with this year's July 4 show. It's one of the area's biggest summer events and calculated to have an economic impact that runs into the millions of dollars.
Many people lined up to speak at Thursday's meeting in a strong show of support for the fireworks shows. They ranged from local business owners and long-time residents to city, county and California and Nevada officials. They all encouraged LTVA to continue its fireworks shows, stressed the economic and community importance of the shows — which are a 35-year tradition at Lake Tahoe — and strongly and unanimously urged Joan and Joseph Truxler to drop their lawsuit.
The two residents of PineWild in Marla Bay filed their lawsuit last November, alleging large amounts of fireworks debris washed up on an area beach after last year's shows.
Included in the debris after the July 4 show were seven ping-pong size balls found on the beach at Marla Bay and removed by public safety workers who confirmed they were filled with explosive powder. However, they posed no immediate threat because they were wet. A LTVA spokesman said at the time the devices weren't from the professional show but were "consumer fireworks" used illegally by someone other than Pyro Spectaculars North, the fireworks show producer.
"We are not going to let this fireworks show go. We are going to fight like hell for it, whatever it takes," said Tom Davis, a member of the LTVA board and the South Lake Tahoe City Council. "This goes out to the Truxlers: Drop that lawsuit. They need to tell their attorney that they want to settle this lawsuit, and that they want to settle it now."
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Hal Cole called the lawsuit a "sad example" of a litigious society. "It's amazing two people can bring a community to its knees like they have," he said.
Alleging the debris is a pollutant under federal law, the lawsuit seeks to require LTVA to acquire a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for its fireworks shows — something not required anywhere else in the country.
"There is not a court in the country that has issued an opinion that the Clean Water Act is applicable to intermittent fireworks shows," LTVA attorney Lew Feldman said Thursday.
In the past, LTVA has asked both the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control board if it needed such a permit and was told it did not, Feldman said.
LTVA does face significant exposure. The lawsuit asks the court to consider imposing tens of millions of dollars in fines — up to $37,500 for every mortar tube used in the twice-annual fireworks shows for the last five years. Furthermore, it could take years to fight the potentially precedent-setting lawsuit in U.S. District Court, racking up huge bills for LTVA, Feldman said.
Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki offered to personally help pick up after this year's fireworks shows if needed. It was an offer shared by nearly 200 other people who attended Thursday's meeting.
"This event is so important economically that we must do all we can to preserve it. Our family will volunteer July 5 to walk up and down the beach to make sure remnants are fully cleaned up," Krolicki said. "It would be a tragedy, travesty and financial disaster if these fireworks were canceled for the Fourth of July."
California State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville), said people will be out of work and businesses will go under if the fireworks shows are canceled.
"I can't believe that people found some paper scraps on the beach and thought the solution was to attack an American tradition like Fourth of July fireworks," Gaines said in a formal statement. "How about working with the LTVA? How about organizing a volunteer cleanup effort to help strengthen the bonds of this community? How about anything besides environmental blackmail?"
After weeks of not publicly commenting on the issue, Carol Chaplin, executive director of the LTVA, challenged some of the allegations laid out in the Truxlers' lawsuit.
Joan and Joseph Truxler never contacted LTVA after the shows to express their concerns about the debris and most of the fireworks debris collected on the beach likely did not even come from its fireworks shows, Chaplin said.
"Notice of intent to sue was received immediately after Labor Day, so our assumption is that any non-litigious solutions were likely not contemplated," Chaplin said.
LTVA board member John Koster called the lawsuit an insult to a community dedicated to protecting Lake Tahoe.
"This would be a travesty if we allow these people, two people, to knock out fireworks in Lake Tahoe, one of the top five shows in the country," he said. "This is easy to collaborate and work together and communicate without bringing in the lawyers. We can resolve this and they should drop their lawsuit. Quickly," he said.
Reached for comment after Thursday's meeting, Joan Truxler said a mediation meeting with LTVA is already scheduled for next Monday in Sacramento.
"Our highest priority is still the health of the lake," Truxler said. "We will not back off on that. We want a legally enforceable permit, because they failed to clean up twice, and without enforcement we find it hard to believe they'll say, 'OK, I'll pick up my toys.'"
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