Scenic California beach city OKs balloon ban to protect coast

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California Balloon Ban
May  2020 file photo shows people walking past a closed off beach in Laguna Beach, Calif. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Environmental advocates are celebrating in Laguna Beach — but not with balloons.

The hilly seaside city known for stunning ocean views and rolling bluffs is banning the sale and public use of balloons to curtail the risk of devastating wildfires and eliminate a major source of trash floating near the community’s scenic shores.

The Laguna Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to ban in public the popular mainstay of birthday and graduation parties, whether inflated with helium or not. Beginning in 2024, the balloons can’t be used on public property or at city events.

The move in the city of 23,000 people 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles comes as several California beach cities have limited balloons and the state enacted a law to regulate the types made of foil.

“This is the beginning,” Chad Nelsen, chief executive of the nonprofit environmental organization Surfrider Foundation, said before the vote.

Nelsen said he sees momentum to weed out balloons that tangle with turtles and sea lions much like he did with the effort to phase out single-use plastic bags. “We’re chipping away at all these things we find and trying to clean up the ocean one item at a time.”

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

Rich German, a Laguna Beach resident and avid paddleboarder, was a leader of the balloon ban effort, CBS Los Angeles reports. He joined with Surfsider and several other local foundations in the push.

German said he hopes the change prompts other beach communities follow suit. 

“A couple years ago, it was like two days after Valentine’s Day, I picked up 31 balloons in one encounter out on the ocean,” German said. “All Valentine’s balloons. Anytime there’s a holiday like Valentine’s Day or Prom or graduation, Mother’s Day — rest assured in the next few days you’re gonna see a lot of balloons out in the ocean.”

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

“Here in Laguna Beach we’re super sensitive about fires, a balloon that hits power lines could easily explode,” German told CBS Los Angeles, bringing back memories of number of a similar incidents that have occurred in Long Beach, ChinoCosta Mesa and Newport Beach in recent years.  

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

Officials in Laguna Beach, which has miles of pristine shoreline and hilltop neighborhoods at risk of wildfires, have long discussed the idea. Lawmakers held an initial, unanimous vote in January to phase out the public use of all balloons. The second and final vote took place Tuesday. The penalty would be a $100 fine for a first violation, $200 for a second and $500 for each additional violation within a year.

In addition, a business that repeatedly violates the ordinance could lose its business license.

Balloons can still be used by residents at home, said Mayor Bob Whalen.

“Even the balloon advocates and balloon industry were not opposed to banning them on the beach,” Whalen said, adding that the city moved on the issue both to reduce the risk of fires and to protect marine life along the city’s roughly six miles of shoreline. “There is going to be some impact on the local distribution of balloons, but as I say, people will still find places to buy balloons.”

Treb Heining, who began 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’ve seen children thrilled – of all ages. You can still be a child at 90 years old,” he said.

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

“They’re doing anything they can to make balloons into this evil, horrible thing. And they’re not,” he said.

Those who support the move include environmental advocates, whale watching groups and a marine mammal organization, which reported seeing a sea lion die of starvation after trash, including balloon fragments, lodged in her digestive tract.

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

Cheryl McKinney, who owns a party supplies company, opposed the idea, saying it would wallop the state economically and that responsible business owners encourage patrons to add weights to balloons and properly dispose of them.

“We always refer our customers to this motto: ‘Don’t let go. Weight. Inflate. Enjoy.'” she wrote.

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