RENO — Joseph and Joan Truxler knew they were headed for some rough waters when they decided in the fall that the only way to stop tourism officials from polluting Lake Tahoe with fireworks debris on the Fourth of July was to sue them under the Clean Water Act.
“We never wanted a lawsuit,” said Joan Truxler, who added she is “hopeful” a settlement conference planned in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday will help resolve the emotional dispute. “We do not want to stop the fireworks.”
But backers of the 30-year-old holiday tradition are accusing the Zephyr Cove couple of trying to do just that, and the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority has decided that if a settlement agreement cannot be reached by Friday, they’ll pull the plug on their sponsorship of the spectacular display they say helps pump more than $30 million into the local economy.
“It would be a travesty, tragedy and financial disaster if these fireworks were canceled,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who is chairman of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.
“Let’s do what we need to make sure it’s right,” he said at a meeting Thursday night in Stateline before the authority’s board set the deadline.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in November states the authority and Pyro Spectaculars North Inc. of Rialto, Calif., should be subject to up to $75 million in fines for making illegal discharges in the lake without a permit.
The authority insists it is not required to obtain a permit. But its lawyer said fighting the lawsuit in court could bankrupt the agency.
“The risks to the LTVA are so overwhelming it would be better to get out of the fireworks business,” Lew Feldman said.
The lawsuit accuses the authority and Pyro Spectaculars of violating the Clean Water Act thousands of times over the past five years by discharging trash, debris, munitions and chemical residues — including perchlorate, nitrate and sulfur — into the lake twice a year on July 4 and Labor Day.
Since July, the Truxlers said they have gathered 8,000 pieces of fireworks pollution, much of it with Pyro Spectaculars’ name on it.
Pyro Spectaculars has produced large-scale pyrotechnic displays for Super Bowls, Olympics, Disneyland, the Statue of Liberty and the 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.
Lawyers for the company said in court papers filed in Sacramento late Thursday that the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the California Regional Water Control Board have “known about the shows for decades” and never required a permit.
Several local business owners told the authority Thursday night the fireworks are key to the local tourism economy, which already is struggling from another dry winter at area ski resorts.
“Without this, we can’t succeed,” said Steve Bryant, owner of Lake Tahoe Boat Rides at the Tahoe Keys Marina in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“It’s just sad that a couple people could destroy such a family tradition,” added Gerri Grego, a South Lake Tahoe resident who served on the El Dorado County Planning Commission and is running for the county Board of Supervisors.
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority Executive Director Carol Chapin said Friday that she remains hopeful the Truxlers will drop the suit “so that we can continue to plan for the Independence Day celebration, which is such an important and meaningful event for our community.”
Joan Truxler said she was disappointed authority officials publicized their contact information at Thursday’s meeting. She accused them of “promoting adult bullying.”
“We have received some very constructive calls … but the adult bullying calls have been alarming,” she said on Friday.
“It’s unfortunate,” Truxler said, but she has no second thoughts about resorting to the lawsuit when tourism officials refused to respond to their concerns. “We will never be sad that we have stood up for the health of our beautiful lake and/or its sustainability for future generations.”
“We are very hopeful about the settlement,” Truxler said. “Joe and I believe in the good people of Tahoe. We want and have always wanted the fireworks to continue for them, their business, their children and our treasured visitors.”