LEGAL OPPONENTS OF FIREWORKS DISPLAYS SPARK CONTROVERSY

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By Miriam Raftery

July 12, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) –Coast Law Group, which represents the Coast Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF), the organization that has sued to halt fireworks shows in San Diego and led to cancellation of the Lake Murray Fireworks in East County, has sparked new controversy. 

On July 4, an attorney representing CERF was caught sneaking into a fireworks staging area and reportedly jeopardized the safety of herself and others.

San Diego Police and Fireworks American confirm that Livia Borak, attorney for CERF in litigation against the City of San Diego and the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation, “purposely evaded security guards and breached the La Jolla show’s security fencing (or jumped a barrier wall) to enter the restricted launch zone, where she secretly assumed a hidden position with a video camera during the performance,” Robert M. Howard, attorney at Latham and Watkins, wrote in a letter to Marco Gonzalez, founder and executive director of CERF and attorney at Coast Law Group.  “In so doing, she put both her own safety and the fireworks crew’s safety in serious peril.”

Borak wore no protective clothing, hearing or eye protection during her July 4 incursion, Howard wrote.  A fireworks crew risked their own safety to remove her from the “danger zone”; minutes later a mortar tube five feet from her hiding spot exploded, injuring a Fireworks America staffer.  The explosion “would have seriously burned or killed Ms. Borak,” wrote Howard, who denounced Borak’s conduct as “unethical” as well as risky.

Accentuating the potential danger, a fireworks display on San Diego Bay went awry on July 4, with all fireworks exploding simultaneously in a giant fire burst within the first 15 minutes of the show.

CERF has won three legal actions against the City of San Diego seeking to halt fireworks displays in the city; an appeal is pending. 

ECM has asked Gonzalez for comment but thus far has not received a response.  In another media outlet report,  Gonzalez  claimed that Borak was justified in her actions and that past photography has shown “burning embers, pieces of fireworks going directly into the water and onto the bluff.”

Marianne Bates, a staffer at Fireworks America, told La Jolla Light that she is angry at putting her life at risk to remove Borak from the area.  She suggests an ulterior motive. “I don’t know if she was there to take pictures, I don’t know if she was there to sabotage the show,” said Bates.

In East County, the Lake Murray July 4 Music Fest and Fireworks show was cancelled this year due to threats made by Gonzalez to organizers.  “Marco sent us an e-mail in 2010 giving us a ‘pass’ as he called it for 2010, but he said point blank, either comply with CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements or we will sue you,” John Pilch, treasurer for the Lake Murray July 4 Fireworks Committee told ECM. 

Lake Murray, a reservoir, is a source of drinking water for the region. The park is also home to wildlife including fish, birds, and mammals potentially impacted by noise, chemicals and debris from fireworks.

Compliance with CEQA would cost at least $25,000 and probably more, he  estimated. Compliance would require hiring a consultant to study the lake and surrounding park, then prepare a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR).  A scoping meeting, public comments and responses to each comment, following by preparation of a final EIR.

In recent years, the Lake Murray event organizers have struggled to raise funds for the show in the struggling economy, hosting fundraising events and scaling back to fireworks only without music.    A permit from the state Water Quality Control Board cost $1500 and required eight hours of cleanup of shoreline and water.   Raising $25,000 is currently prohibitive, Pilch said.  “We can’t just print up money.”

“Lots of people were disappointed,” Pilch said regarding cancelling of this year’s fireworks show.  But he added that at a Navajo Planning Group Meeting, residents expressed opinions on both sides of the issue.  “Some people were complaining about what fireworks do to domestic animals and to the wildlife,” he noted.

Pilch noted that Gonzalez has previously told media that he didn’t sue the Lake Murray group “because we didn’t have any money,” said Pilch, who questions CERF’s motivations.  “Is it money or is it the environment?”

Some critics have also asked why Coast Law resorted to forming CERF, a pseudo-environmental foundation operating out of the law firm’s office, with officers at the same address.  Is the firm motivated by profit, or altruism for the environment? 

The litigation also raises a question of economic fairness:  will future fireworks shows be restricted only to wealthy enclaves such as La Jolla that can afford pricey CEQA compliance, while middle class and economically disadvantaged communities do without an American Independence Day tradition?

Despite this year’s fizzled fireworks show, Pilch remains hopeful that the Lake Murray Fireworks will be revived in the future.  He concluded, “We’re optimistic that a settlement will be reached.”