California coastal city weighs ban on balloons to protect coastline

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Environmentalists are celebrating in Laguna Beach, but it won't be with balloons.

The mountainous coastal city known for its stunning ocean views and rolling cliffs is weighing a plan to ban the sale and public use of balloons to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires and eliminate a major source of trash floating near the picturesque community costs.

The Laguna Beach City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to ban the popular birthday and graduation party mainstay in public, whether or not it is inflated with helium. The move in the community of 23,000 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles comes as several California coastal cities have limited balloons and the state enacted a law to regulate types made of aluminum foil.

“This is the beginning,” said Chad Nelsen, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, adding that he sees momentum to eliminate balloons entangling turtles and sea lions, as he did with the effort to Eliminate single-use balloons. plastic bags. “We are removing all these things that we find and trying to clean up the ocean one item at a time.”

Environmental advocates take aim at the balloons, arguing they are an avoidable cause of coastal pollution that threatens animals and seabirds. Balloon debris can entangle wildlife or be ingested by animals who mistake it for food, and volunteers in Virginia picked up more than 3,000 balloon debris on ocean beaches over a five-year period, according to the Office of Response and Restoration. from NOAA . .

In California, firefighters have long warned against foil balloons that can become entangled with power lines, causing a power outage and a potential fire hazard. Southern California Edison, one of the state's largest utilities, reported more than 1,000 foil balloon-related power outages in 2017, affecting more than 1 million customers, according to a legislative analysis. state .

But advocates for the coast want legislation that addresses balloon litter as well as fire risk. Coastal communities in Florida, Delaware and New York have adopted regulations aimed at reducing balloon pollution. Several in Southern California have taken similar steps. The city of Manhattan Beach has banned aluminum balloons on public property and the mass release of latex balloons, while two coastal cities in San Diego County have banned balloons filled with a lighter-than-air gas.

Officials in Laguna Beach, which has miles of pristine shoreline and hilltop neighborhoods at risk from wildfires, have long discussed the idea. Lawmakers held an initial unanimous vote in January to phase out public use of all balloons, with a second and final vote scheduled for Tuesday. The penalty would be a $100 fine for the first violation and higher fines for additional violations within a year.

Residents can still use balloons in their homes, Mayor Bob Whalen said.

“Even balloon advocates and the balloon industry were not opposed to banning balloons from the beach,” Whalen said, adding that the city addressed the issue both to reduce the risk of fire and to protect marine life along the way. of the approximately six miles (10 miles) of the city. kilometers) of coastline. "There will be some impact on local balloon distribution, but as I say, people will still find places to buy balloons."

Treb Heining, who started selling balloons at Disneyland when he was 15 years old and now, more than 50 years later, works internationally in the balloon industry, said balloons bring happiness to the world.

“All my life, I have seen excited children, of all ages. You can still be a kid at 90 years old,” she said.

Heining said Laguna Beach officials would not come to the table to compromise. He suggested banning portable helium tanks for the public, banning balloon releases, and banning balloons on the beach, rather than an all-or-nothing approach.

“They are doing everything they can to turn the balloons into this horrible, evil thing. And they are not,” she said.

Among those supporting the move are environmental advocates, whale-watching groups and a marine mammal organization, which reported seeing a sea lion starve to death after trash, including balloon fragments, got stuck in your digestive tract.

“This is another chance to be bold and be on the right side of an issue,” resident Mark Christy wrote in a letter to the council last month.

Cheryl McKinney, the owner of a party supply company, opposed the idea, saying it would hurt the state financially and that responsible business owners encourage customers to add weights to balloons and dispose of them properly.

“We always refer our clients to this motto: 'Don't let go. Weight. Inflate. Enjoy it,'” she wrote.

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