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Roundtable: Fireworks Over Fireworks Displays

Roundtable: Fireworks Over Fireworks Displays
Fourth of July fireworks are turning out to be highly controversial in San Diego. A judge is due to rule today on a lawsuit seeking to halt the fireworks events over water in the city unless there is a more thorough environmental review.

Fourth of July fireworks are turning out to be highly controversial. A judge is due to rule today on a lawsuit seeking to halt the fireworks in the city unless there is a more thorough environmental review. But Mayor Jerry Sanders and the La Jolla fireworks foundation are not taking this lying down. If the ruling goes against them they plan to appeal.

Guests: Dean Calbreath, economics reporter, San Diego Union Tribune

Liam Dillon, reporter,


David King, editor and founder of

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS Midday Edition, round table. I'm Alison St. John. And with us we have David King, editor and founder of San Diego Newsroom, Dean Calbreath, economics reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune, and Liam Dillon, city hall reporter for So this is hot and colorful topic, fourth of July fire works are turning out to be a highly controversial issue. A judge is ruling today on a suit seeking to halt fire works in La Jolla. Unless there's a more firm environmental review. But Mayor Jerry Sanders and the La Jolla fire works community foundation are not taking this lying down. If the ruling goes against them, they plan to appeal, now, we'd really like to hear your opinion on this issue. It's kind of like patriotism versus environmentalism in a way. The number here to join the round table is 1-888-895-5727. And what do you think? Should the city go out and respond a bunch of taxpayer money to defend the fire works? Where do you stand on this issue? So David, you are our lead person on this. Fill us in on what the lawsuit was about, and who filed it.

KING: The lawsuit was about a process, and it's the city's process for issuing permits for events. And even though what this group is fitting over fire works, the essence of what they've -- the way that they have gone about this is so much broader than fire works. The judge's ruling doesn't have the word fire works in there. There's nothing in there. The regional water board came to a conclusion that fire works do have an impact, and anybody who wants to shoot off fire works, and you to thea get a permit.

ST. JOHN: Is that the suit right there?

KING: I've got two things right here. I've got the papers from the suit, but I've also got this phone book here, it's the region water board's permit that everyone will have to get in order to shoot off fire works, so in addition to meeting a clean water act permit now for shooting fire works, does the city have to do an environmental review before giving any special event permits? And it applies so much more broadly than just to fire works displays. It would be any road race, any barbecues, any special events where you're gonna get too many people together in the park. Is that what we consider a project under this California environmental quality act, and thus mandate that you do an environmental review of it? The unfortunate thing, the real issue here looking at this, and I used to defend these types of cases.


ST. JOHN: You were an attorney.

KING: And this was my area, is that the city didn't contest the issue of whether or not this is a project. A project is something where you go out with a shovel and lift some dirt and move something, and you've changed the environment. You make it different. It's not just a brief impact. A garbage truck goes down the road, that's an impact on the environment. But if you build a house, if you build 50 houses, that's a project. And they didn't dispute this issue. So even if this goes up on appeal, you can't bring up an issua an appeal that you didn't bring up in the trial court. We're in a real unfortunate position here, and it might require some sort of a legislative fix here. It's about a broad state environmental law that applies to everything that's a project that's discretionary. But the way that this case has come out, this does -- this applies to a cat fashion show if so many people can come to it because it's a permit, and the city has the ability to say no. Since they have the ability to say no if it were a project, that means it's discretionary project, and you're impacting the environment, and you gotta study it.

ST. JOHN: So this does not just apply to fire works.

KING: So much broader than fire works.

ST. JOHN: And certainly not just to the fire works in La Jolla. Although I understand that the fortune who filed it.

KING: Right.

ST. JOHN: Marco Gonzalez said he would allow people 90 days but not for La Jolla.

KING: And you can't do that. He's come in now to attack the process of issuing these perps. You can't just cherry pick exactly which permits you would allow. What the city did wrong for the permits to allow fire works in La Jolla was wrong, all the perms are wrong. The perms for the rock and roll marathon, the permits for special events, parties, all of these would be subject to the California Environmental Quality 0Act, and subject to reviews, subject to lawsuits, subject to appeals to the City Council, this has got broad reach. And again the unfortunate thing is that you only have so many pages to brief this to a judge.

ST. JOHN: And you think the city hasn't set off on the right foot?

KING: They missed the real issue here. It's whether or not it's a project, it's the gating item as to whether or not these whole review applies.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, we only have one attorney in the studio now. But that's interesting.

KING: It's a mess.

ST. JOHN: So our number here is 1-888-895-5727. And we have Lori from Clairemont on the line. Thanks so much for joining us, Lori, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Years ago, people would go to their community recreation centers and enjoy the fire works close to home instead of everybody driving to the coast. And it creates huge traffic jams, and people who don't like to drive after night can't see the fire works, they can see them from a distance. Why don't we just go back to community fireworks in other areas, and get away from all this focused on the coast if this is gonna turn into such a huge problem?

ST. JOHN: Okay. And this is Lori SaldaÒa, so thanks for calling us. And David, I'd just like to throw that to you. Is it really focused on fire works over water? This suit?

KING: I don't disagree with Lori at all, and if we were talking about the environmental impacts, there's a lot of ways to go about it. This approach here was to attack the permitting process. So if just has a broader reach. I voted to approve the first fire works permits that was issued to sea world, and if I were still on the board, I would have voted for the permit that was issued for all fire works displays. I think there's issues with it, these have to be studied. But the broader lawsuit that we're dealing with here really tips the applecart for all permits.

CALBREATH: Although I think being on water does have a -- there is a difference between doing that and being in your neighborhood. There are flammable things in people's neighborhood. And we have had a number of fires over here in the past several years. So I think that being over water is a concern, and that's one reason that it has moved to the coast or to places like like Murray and other water places.

ST. JOHN: Good. So you would just replace one problem with another if you went back to doing them over the community.

CALBREATH: Right. Maybe we could do them over every lake or something.

ST. JOHN: But then the lake has still got fish in it and an environment in the lake. Liam?

DILLON: Yeah, one thing from my coverage and from your comments, David, I think has gotten a little bit short shrimped, in terms of people who are talking about this in terms of fireworks and apple pie, and this crazy surfer environmental lawyer who's calling all this ruckus, and all these practicals, but it seems to me that as you said, the problem is the process the city has sort of outlined. And my understanding is that a couple weeks ago or recently, the city tried to sort of fix this. And the Court from my reading of the coverage, it appears that the opposite occurred. That it actually made this harder to get these sorts of things approved without this kind of very difficult administrative --

ST. JOHN: So can you clarify for us Liam? They did a vote last week.

DILLON: Relatively last week. This tried to fix it. But from mid reading of the coverage so far, it actually had the opposite effect.

ST. JOHN: David?

KING: And I'll apologize ahead of time for getting a little technical on this thing. Once you determine you've got a project, you're picking up a shovel, and you're changing the environment, then the next step is the one that Liam is talking about. If you want to build a home, and you've got a piece of land zoned to allow you to build a 3000 square foot home, you go in with plans for a home, the city has to give you that permit to build that hole. There's no discretion in it. And the word he's using, ministerial. Since there's no discretion, since the city can't tell you no, there's nothing to study. You're got the right to force them to do it. You want to build three thousand homes, they can tell you no just because they want to tell you no. That's discretion. Those are projects you've gotta study. They went down the path of arguing whether it's ministerial versus discretionary without getting into the first question, is this a project? Does this change the environment? Since it's not in their briefs, and it's not anything that was put before the Court, you can't bring it up for the first time and there's no way to reverse this.

DILLON: What I want to know is kind of who's to blame here? Is it the surfing lawyer? Is it the mayor? Is it the City Council? Is it the state? Is it the city attorney? Who is really at fault for the fact that we don't have a clear answer on something that people have enjoyed for 200 years?

ST. JOHN: And will this cost the city tax payer money to be going to court perhaps where, David, you're suggesting they don't stand a good chance of winning?

KING: Possibly. I don't know. This is an imperfect area. But there's a lot of blame to go around. This law, the California environmental quality act, if you talk to builders, they say this is what holds back California's economy more than anything else. That there's all these vagaries and uncertainties, you want to do a project? Take it outside of California. Even if you want to build a water treatment plant, it's easier to do it somewhere else.

ST. JOHN: I want to just put the call out again because even though you're making the point that this is much wider than just fire works, the fact is I believe the lawsuit is saying -- recommending it gives the judge discretion to give people 90 days to figure out what to do. But that the La Jolla fireworks that are coming up in one month is really what is at stake here because that was made an exception of by Marco Gonzales, and they would have to cancel the fire works if they do not --

KING: The Plaintiffs in this case got a broader victory than what they want. If they just wanted to restrict this one particular fire works show, well, they tried to do that last year with just a case over the impacts of those fire works? So what did they attack this go round and they went after the process? It's the same process of issuing a permit. Whether it's fire works or whether it's a barbecue, a big event, a concert. So if the process is flawed for fireworks, it's flawed for everything. This is a major problem.

ST. JOHN: So that could be then that we will see that there are no fire works on July fourth.

KING: Very well could be the case.

ST. JOHN: In La Jolla.

KING: And this is a call to Sacramento for a fix here. That they need to come in and say, what do we want to cover? They could also go back to the city and say, why didn't you argue that this was a project to judge Quinn?

ST. JOHN: Was the City attorney on the case when it was originally --

KING: The city and the private party, the La Jolla group filed a joint brief. It appears to have been prepared pie the private parties' attorney. But this is a very competent fireman.

ST. JOHN: Who's a pro bono attorney I believe.

KING: No, no no, this is a major major law firm here. And there's a lot at stake with this, because all of the fire works are facing the same issue. Is the attorney at fault? I certainly would have argued that it's not a project. And if you don't argue it, the judge isn't gonna come out in your favor.

ST. JOHN: And what has the city attorney said so far about this case?

KING: Going back to the point that Liam is making, that this is ministerial versus discretionary, that's not the point. The city has to have some discretion. When it issued these events permits. Otherwise the rock and roll marathon could go in and say well, you've got to issue us a permit for a marathon, and the course of our marathon runs through the city hall council chambers, you're gotta have some authority to say that the police can say, no, that's insane.

ST. JOHN: Liam?

DILLON: Just to go back to the fire works for a second. I think it is important to note that we don't be what effect fire works have on the water or on birds or other animal populations.

ST. JOHN: Voice of San Diego did a fact check.

DILLON: Yeah, we did a fact check this week of the mayor who said something to the effect of study after study just included that there are no ill effects. And that's not true, at this point, basically these studies are inconclusively at best, it was showing with some ill effects. I think showing whether those [CHECK AUDIO] are enough to outweigh the fact that we have these fire works that people enjoy every week.

ST. JOHN: I noticed in the article there, there were some ill effects that had been established in certain places, and that's a question that was in my mind. Has anyone really established scientifically that there are ill effects?

DILLON: I think we did point out there has not been a tremendous amount of scientific research, but the research that has been done shows an indication that there is some, at least some impact to the environment.

ST. JOHN: David?

KING: The first monitoring that's been done at this is at sea world. And [CHECK AUDIO] said yes, there are effects. Enough to make everybody who's gonna shoot off fire works come in and get a permit from us, the clean water police before you do it. So isn't that good enough? Or do you need another environmental review on top of a clean water act permit? I argue that this is enough. It requires a lot of steps other monitoring these people are gonna have to do. This is gonna put a cost to it.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, we can't resolve this issue here at the Roundtable, unfortunately. But it certainly stirred up a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of ideas and we'll see what happens July fourth. I'd like to thank the members of our roundtable.