A federal lawsuit accusing the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority of polluting the alpine lake with debris from Fourth of July and Labor Day fireworks says the tourism agency and its contractor should be subject to up to $75 million in fines.
Joseph and Joan Truxler of Zephyr Cove, Nev., on the lake's southeast shore, insist their suit is not intended to halt the spectacular, boat-launched displays that have wowed tens of thousands of visitors for three decades.
But they're frustrated by what they say is the authority's indifference — and state and U.S. regulators' failure — to protect the cobalt blue lake from the debris and chemical pollutants.
“The inaction on their part is what has triggered all this,” Joan Truxler told The Associated Press.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in November alleges that thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act were committed over five years.
Judge Troy Nunley agreed last week to extend until Feb. 10 the deadline for the authority and Pyro Spectaculars North Inc. to respond to the suit.
Both are accused of discharging trash, debris, munitions and chemical residues — including perchlorate, nitrate and sulfur — into the lake twice a year for at least the last five years.
The lawsuit says that they failed to obtain the necessary discharge permit in violation of the federal act and are violating California and Nevada state water quality standards strictly prohibiting debris on the lake, which is famous for its clear waters.
Pyro Spectaculars of Rialto, Calif., has produced large-scale pyrotechnic displays for Super Bowls, Olympics, Disneyland, the Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge since it was founded in 1979.
Crews begin to clear the surface of the lake soon after the show and divers are sent below to retrieve visible debris from the lake bed, but the lawsuit contends those efforts are ineffective.
Michael Roseau, an Oakland, Calif.-based attorney for the Truxlers, notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators in September of their intent to sue.
The Truxlers have watched the fireworks since they started vacationing at Tahoe in 1972. They bought a condo in 1999 and moved there year-round in 2006.
“I thought what everyone else thought: You mean it doesn't just disintegrate in the air and go away,” Joan Truxler said.
She started gathering paper, plastic and cardboard tubes — some with Pyro's label — on Pinewild Beach in Marla Bay on July 5 after her 2-year-old grandson held up a fireworks fuse and said, “Look, Grandma.”
“It was alarming,” she said, especially after fire officials had warned that washed-up, unexploded fireworks could pose a danger if they dried out. By Aug. 23, she'd collected enough debris to cover a 60-square-foot surface, she says.
More than 200 mortars launch rockets and fireworks at each holiday show, the lawsuit says. It argues each discharge is a separate violation of the act punishable by up to a $37,500 fine — a total of more than 2,000 violations during the 10 shows subject to $75 million in fines.
It argues alternatively that if each mortar tube doesn't qualify as a discharge point source — rather the individual boats are the source — there still were at least 27 violations punishable by up to $1.1 million in fines.
Carol Chaplin, the authority's executive director, can't picture a Fourth at the lake without fireworks.
“We've been shooting them off for 30 years and this is the first time there has been a complaint,” she said. “It's an iconic event. It has a huge economic impact for the region.”
EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. She said states are responsible for all permitting.
Lawyers for the authority and the contractor said they routinely secure the only permits required from the U.S. Coast Guard and the local fire department. State regulators won't comment on the suit, but Nevada Division of Environmental spokeswoman JoAnn Kittrell agrees no state water permit is required.
Kara Thiel, a lawyer for the LTVA, said the suit attempts to exploit a law “intended to discourage pollutant discharge concealed from regulatory oversight.”
“It is inconceivable LTVA and Pyro would fall into this category,” she said.
Truxler said most neighbors are supportive of their effort, but she also hears of criticism.
“I can't blame other people for feeling that way,” she said. “They are nervous the fireworks might be canceled, but that is not our goal. We want better oversight.”
“It's about the bigger picture — the health of the lake and its clarity, and how much of that stuff is sitting at the bottom of the lake.”