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Cleaning up Fireworks Displays on San Francisco Bay

Advocates push for stronger regulation of Fourth of July shows to protect bay ecosystem

A version of story appeared on the Baykeeper website.

On July 4, all around San Francisco Bay, brightly colored fireworks will light up the night sky. It’s a fun tradition. But how much does the rockets’ red glare pollute the bay?

Photo by Daniel Parks Fireworks displays over the bay are a tradition in San Francisco.

Fireworks are often set off over water, as they are in the shows around San Francisco Bay, because setting them off over land creates a risk of fire. However, fireworks can cause so much pollution, some communities ban them over lakes used as drinking water sources.

Following two fireworks shows over San Francisco Bay earlier this year, held as part of the festivities celebrating the 50th Super Bowl, several reports of fireworks pollution came in to Baykeeper’s Pollution Hotline.

The morning after the first fireworks display, swimmers in the water at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park swam into significant plastic and cardboard debris. That day, National Park Service staff removed charred fuses, plastic, and cardboard pieces from the Aquatic Park beach, filling four 50-gallon trash containers.

Following the second fireworks show a week later on February 5, 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 remained in the bay, washed up on other shorelines, or washed out into the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by David McGuire, Shark Stewards Fireworks debris that washed up at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park in February.

In addition to the debris that is often left behind following displays, studies have linked fireworks to water contamination, particularly by perchlorate, a chemical used in fireworks to create bright flashes of light. Perchlorate exposure can cause thyroid problems, and is considered a “likely human carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency. It can also harm wildlife.

This pollution doesn’t have to happen. There are methods of preventing, or at least minimizing, pollution from fireworks. Some cities are already doing this. In San Diego, for example, companies putting on fireworks displays are required to use practices that give maximum protection to the body of water below.

In San Francisco, as in other cities around the country, there are several simple ways to reduce pollution. To start, companies putting on fireworks displays should remove all cardboard, plastic, and other debris from the water and shorelines within 24 hours of the show to minimize impacts on marine life and swimmers in the water. Cities should also require the use of fireworks that replace perchlorate with less toxic substances that are safer for humans and wildlife alike. Additionally, fireworks being launched from barges should be properly secured at all times, to prevent fireworks from falling into the water before they are even set off.  

San Francisco Baykeeper, a nonprofit that works to stop pollution in the bay, is advocating for new agency regulations that would give San Francisco Bay these protections from fireworks pollution, and more. In particular, Baykeeper is advocating that producers of fireworks displays on the San Francisco Bay be required to obtain a Clean Water Act permit prior to shows, detailing what measures they will take to prevent debris from polluting the water. The company that puts on the majority of local fireworks displays, Pyro Spectaculars, Inc., is cooperating with Baykeeper to undertake protective measures to improve fireworks shows over the water.

Following this year’s Fourth of July fireworks displays by the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, Baykeeper, the nonprofit organization Shark Stewards, a project of Earth Island Institute, along with the Dolphin Club swimmers and boaters association, will hold two investigative cleanups. We’ll take stock of how much fireworks debris has washed onto the shorelines at the Berkeley Marina and at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and clean up whatever we find. And we’ll continue to work with Pyro Spectaculars and local agencies to improve practices around future fireworks displays — toward a Declaration of Independence for San Francisco Bay from future fireworks pollution. 

Sejal Choksi-Chugh
Sejal Choksi-Chugh is the Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper. Baykeeper uses on-the-water patrols of San Francisco Bay, science, advocacy and the courts to stop bay pollution. To report pollution, call Baykeeper's hotline at 1-800-KEEP-BAY, e-mail hotline@baykeeper.org, or click “Report Pollution” at baykeeper.org.

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