The Center for Environmental Health says the South Lake Tahoe event emitted unsafe levels of benzene — a byproduct from diesel vehicles and generators commonly used at festivals.
MTV and its annual SnowGlobe Music Festival in South Lake Tahoe, California, have settled a lawsuit brought by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) for allegedly emitting high levels of benzene — a chemical known to cause cancer and lead to reproductive toxicity in humans.
The complaint, which was filed Dec. 19 in California Superior Court in Alameda County, states that the festival — held Dec. 29-31 each year — failed to provide “clear and reasonable warnings” to attendees that they were being exposed to benzene. The chemical compound is emitted by the exhaust from gasoline engines, including the types of diesel vehicles and generators used to power SnowGlobe. The failure to post signs warning of benzene exposure past a certain threshold is a violation of California Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.
“There’s a sort of general trend in the music industry … to try and make festivals more green,” CEH representative Caroline Cox tells Billboard. “A lot of the festivals, at least in California, [have] taken various steps to kind of reduce their environmental impact. And this is just one additional thing that we’re hoping that festivals will look at and take steps to improve.”
Both Cox and the SnowGlobe Music Festival confirmed that CEH and the defendants have reached a settlement agreement, though it is currently awaiting court approval. Under the terms of the settlement, SnowGlobe has agreed to use biodiesel buses for transportation from several major California cities to the festival, as well as for shuttling during the festival, so long as bus companies “otherwise approved for use by” the festival have those buses available at “market rates” and within 100 miles of pick-up stations in those cities and South Lake Tahoe, respectively.
Though Cox maintains that benzene levels, which were tested using personal monitoring devices at the 2018 SnowGlobe festival, exceeded the threshold outlined in Proposition 65, SnowGlobe organizers disputed that, telling Billboard the lawsuit was merely about the lack of posted warnings.
“CEH’s Proposition 65 lawsuit is about not having warning signs on site during the 2018 Festival,” said the festival in a statement emailed to Billboard. “SnowGlobe disputes that the 2018 Festival operations released ‘significant amounts’ of benzene, as CEH alleged, or any amount of benzene above California’s highly conservative ‘safe harbor’ levels. SnowGlobe also disputes that CEH used a valid method for determining benzene exposures at the 2018 Festival.”
Though SnowGlobe contends that benzene levels at the 2018 festival were not above the safe harbor levels outlined in Proposition 65, it adds that the CEH settlement agreeement was reached in order to avoid further litigation and that warning signs were posted at the 2019 festival to avoid future lawsuits. Festival organizers also affirm their commitment to more sustainable practices moving forward.
“In 2019, as a precautionary measure to avoid further litigation, SnowGlobe posted warning signs, although SnowGlobe strongly disputes that there were any exposures to benzene due to Festival operations above California’s ‘safe harbor’ levels,” the statement continues. “Because of SnowGlobe’s commitment to the environment and to avoid litigation with this environmental group, it has entered into a settlement with CEH regarding the Proposition 65 warning sign requirements. Our long-term goal for SnowGlobe is to transition into a completely sustainable event — an ambition inspired both by the South Lake Tahoe community’s culture of environmentalism and our team’s personal belief in the importance of conscientious and ethical event planning. We’re happy to report that with guidance from the amazing team at Waste Free Earth, we’ve made significant steps year over year towards reaching our goal.”
The SnowGlobe case could have farther-reaching implications for the festival industry at large in California, as the diesel-powered equipment that led to the lawsuit is typical of other festivals in the state and nationwide. Cox notes that CEH has already “looked at a couple” of other California festivals regarding their benzene emissions, though she adds that the process of identifying violators isn’t yet a “systematic” one.
“We just haven’t looked at enough [festivals] to know if it’s more of a general problem,” she says.
Still, Cox suggests that if a CEH member “knows somebody who’s going” to a specific festival in the future, they may ask them to bring benzene monitoring devices onto the grounds with them, making the threat of future lawsuits a real one.
Founded by Chad Donnelly in 2011, the SnowGlobe Music Festival was purchased in 2018 by MTV, which at the time of the acquisition revealed plans to expand the festival to other dates and locations around the world. The 2019 edition hosted 20,000 attendees and featured performances by Skrillex, Vince Staples, E-40, Kyle, Dominic Fike, Doja Cat and Louis the Child, among others.