Long Beach restaurateur John Morris, who created the fundraiser Big Bang on the Bay fireworks show in 2011, is expected to be in federal court on Tuesday, Jan. 31, facing a lawsuit from Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation accusing him of polluting Alamitos Bay with debris from his annual charity fireworks display.
A ruling in this case could impact fireworks shows where fireworks are exploded over the water all over the region, including high-profile shows at Sea World in San Diego as well as displays in Huntington Beach, Marina del Rey, Dana Point, San Clemente, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and San Pedro.
Morris says he has received permits every year from city and state governmental agencies, and followed orders from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board in 2022 for monitoring and regulating discharges for the July 3 show. The CERF complaint says that the show violates the Clean Water Act by discharging pollution — fireworks debris — in Alamitos Bay without a permit.
According to the lawsuit, “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.”
The suit also says: “Many of the enumerated pollutants are particularly harmful to aquatic wildlife and humans alike. Firework discharges can directly impact multiple beneficial uses of receiving waters. Releases copper can cause toxicity for organisms living on the bay bottom while fireworks debris can cause a condition of nuisance for people participating in recreational activities.”
Explosions from fireworks startle and disturb birds, the suit also alleges, including two endangered species — the brown pelican and least tern.
Each year, 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 more. But the highlight is a fireworks show with shells shot from a barge in Alamitos Bay. It raises money for local nonprofits including Children Today.
The case is being heard in Central District of California, United States District Court, in Los Angeles. The hearing is scheduled for two days. CERF is seeking an injunction against the Long Beach fireworks show without a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, civil penalties of $56,460 for every show since 2015 and payment of attorney’s fees and costs to CERF.
“This is the first time this has ever been in court,” Morris said last week. “Why did they pick on the Big Bang? I’ve already spent $200,000 on this, and it’s a fundraiser for nonprofits. They’re just taking money away from them.
“I hired Mel Nutter (a well-known environmental advocate and lawyer) and we followed all the conditions the government set,” he added. “It still wasn’t enough for them. It’s clear they want to cancel all fireworks across the country.”
Calls to the CERF office were referred to attorney Livia Borak Beaudin of the Coast Law Group, LLP. Calls and emails to Beaudin for comment were not returned.
Anna Christensen, a CERF member in Long Beach and a member of the Sierra Club Los Cerritos Wetlands Task Force, did not address the lawsuit directly. Instead, she sent comments from Beaudin to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board in December.
“BHOTB failed to conduct an independent, fact-based analysis of the ‘feasibility of…selecting alternative debris fallout locations to avoid and/or mitigate potential impacts to water quality from the fireworks display’ and assessment of ‘alternative onshore firing ranges to eliminate or reduce residual firework pollutant waste discharges to waters of the United States.’ (Order No. R4-2022-0213, Section A.iv). Instead, their ‘study’ simply dismisses the fact that fireworks discharged over water result discharge of debris,” were among the comments made, and repeated in the lawsuit.
Long Beach has sponsored shows for the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve off the Queen Mary and in Rainbow Harbor, but the city is not a party to the lawsuit.
Huntington Beach has a large fireworks show for the Fourth over the ocean, Marina del Rey’s show is over the water, as are shows at Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and San Pedro. Dana Point’s fireworks are seen up and down the coast, and San Clemente launches fireworks from its pier on the Fourth. Further south, Sea World in San Diego has fireworks shows over Mission Bay most weekends through the summer.
CERF had filed a lawsuit against Sea World, but that case was settled before it reached court. San Diego Coastkeeper also has fought fireworks there and elsewhere in San Diego.
Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Visit Huntington Beach, said the coastal town’s free fireworks show caps a days-long Fourth of July celebration that draws people from throughout Orange County and the country.
The show, which lasts about 20 to 25 minutes, is an important part of the festivities and a bright spot in the year, especially with everything people have been facing, from the effects of inflation to the years of pandemic worries.
“I think it’s important to pause and celebrate this great country we live in,” he said.
In all, the Huntington Beach celebration draws upward 300,000 people, many who stay at local hotels or eat meals before the night time firework show, adding to the town’s tourism base.
A spokesperson for the Port of Los Angeles, which traditionally has produced two fireworks shows over the harbor each year, said the case has not been on the port’s radar and nothing has been relayed regarding it from their firework contractors.
Typically, said the port’s Chelsea Boyd, the port hosts a fireworks show twice a year, for the Lunar New Year and the Cars & Stripes Forever July 4 weekend celebrations.
“For the past few Lunar New Year festivals,” Boyd added in a written comment, “the fireworks have not been over the water but from a designated safe area on land.”
In Redondo Beach, it’s a typical Fourth of July celebration. In Manhattan Beach, the pyrotechnics are launched from the pier area over the water in December as a Christmas tradition.
Morris and the Big Bang show were sued in 2015 over pollution, with Morris agreeing to conduct water quality studies before and after shows. Last year, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued an order for additional water quality studies and a best management practices plan to be submitted before a permit was issued for the 2022 show. Morris also received permits for the fireworks from the California Coastal Commission and the city of Long Beach special events bureau.
The 2022 order from the water quality board, said it was part of a larger investigation regarding the impact of fireworks on water quality in the region. It also notes that the type and amount of residue varies with the type of shell, angle of launch, weather and more.
The lawsuit notes that two of nine regional water quality boards, San Diego and San Francisco, have issued general NPDES permits. Reports from Morris were due to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board last month.
Long Beach environmental groups have fought against the fireworks show for the last two years, with a group called the Sierra Club Los Cerritos Wetlands Task Force saying the fireworks disturbed birds around the bay as well as polluting the water. One of the leaders, Ann Cantrell, argued for a drone light show to replace the fireworks, but Morris declined.
Last month, CERF’s attorney, Livia Borak Beaudin, wrote a lengthy letter to the Regional Water Quality Control Board arguing an NPDES permit for the 2023 Big Bang should be denied. In it, Beaudin claims Morris did not complete the actions required in the 2022 order — Morris says he satisfied every part of the order.
The case is being heard at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. There is no indication when a ruling may be made.
Staff writers Laylan Connelly and Donna Littlejohn contributed to this report.