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Stopping Fireworks Pollution in San Francisco Bay

Photo by Daniel Parks.

When new pollution threats arise, San Francisco Baykeeper takes effective action to protect San Francisco Bay. A recent example is contamination of the Bay from fireworks. In January and February 2016, San Francisco hosted Super Bowl 50 and celebrated with two fireworks displays over the Bay. Soon after the first display, Baykeeper’s pollution hotline lit up with reports of fireworks debris in the water and along the Bay shoreline.

Photo by David McGuire (sharkstewards.org)

Swimmers at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park ran into significant plastic and cardboard debris. The National Park Service staff reported removing charred fuses, plastic and cardboard pieces from the Aquatic Park beach, filling four 50-gallon trash containers. Following the second fireworks show, 30 more pounds of fireworks debris washed up at the Aquatic Park beach. More continued to wash up for weeks. It’s likely that even more fireworks waste remained in the Bay, washed up on other shorelines, or was carried out into the ocean. Of particular concern was the potential negative impact of perchlorate — a chemical used in fireworks to make bright flashes of light. Once perchlorate is in the water, it can harm people and wildlife.

But this pollution never had to happen. There are methods of preventing, or at least minimizing, pollution from fireworks. For example, fireworks materials can be secured in such a way to prevent excess debris from falling into the Bay. There are also safer, less toxic alternatives to perchlorate.

Immediately following the initial reports of fireworks debris, Baykeeper investigated the affected areas, collected samples, and alerted the government agencies responsible for regulating the fireworks shows. But the government agencies declined to follow up. So Baykeeper’s staff attorneys went directly to the company that puts on most fireworks displays over the Bay.  And we secured an agreement with that company to make sure future displays over the Bay would use proven methods to keep fireworks pollution out of the water.

The effectiveness of this speedy response became evident a few months later, following the annual July 4th fireworks displays by the same company. Baykeeper staff, volunteers, and other partner groups held two investigative cleanups on the San Francisco and Berkeley shorelines, finding no fireworks debris. Baykeeper will monitor future fireworks displays to make sure the pollution agreement is being honored.

Fireworks pollution is just one of the many types of contamination that San Francisco Baykeeper has successfully targeted to keep the Bay clean, safe, and healthy. Baykeeper has stopped industrial pollution and sewage pollution, and we’ve made the Bay safer from oil spills. Using water quality monitoring, science, and on-the-water boat patrols, Baykeeper identifies the greatest threats to the Bay’s health. Baykeeper uses advocacy, public education, and legal action to keep contamination out of San Francisco Bay — the heart of the Bay Area’s landscape, communities, and economy.