Ultra Lawyer: Environmental Concerns Are Overblown, No Wildlife Will Be Harmed

Ultra Music Festival
Ultra Music Festival Photo by George Martinez
This weekend, Ultra will draw about 125,000 EDM fans to its new home on Virginia Key, a wildlife sanctuary that's normally home only to manatees, birds, crocodiles, and other protected wildlife. Despite a long list of concerns raised by the local nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper and other environmentalists, the festival's organizers insist no harm will be done to the island's wild inhabitants.

During a media event this morning aboard the Seafair yacht, Ultra reps outlined the steps they're taking to minimize the festival's environmental impact. Besides banning Styrofoam, plastic straws, single-use plastic cups, balloons, confetti, and streamers, they're fencing off beaches and other ecologically sensitive areas. They're distributing pocket ashtrays and using alternatives to fireworks that leave less debris. The showrunners are also implementing noise-mitigation features at some stages.

"Being trusted with the unique environmental and historical elements of Virginia Key was a responsibility that Ultra took seriously from the very start,” said Vivian Belzaguy, the festival's senior sustainability manager. "And it brought the organization new and welcome challenges that they have never really seen before." 

Environmentalists have worried about the festival's effect on wildlife since its move to Virginia Key was approved. In November, the Miami Herald reported that a University of Miami marine biologist feared the noise could fatally startle the fish in its hatchery lab by causing them to slam into the sides of tanks or jump out to try to escape. The dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Roni Avissar, told the paper that when the noise enters the tanks, it can be louder than a jet engine and enough to break glass.

More recently, Miami Waterkeeper's executive director, Rachel Silverstein, sent the festival organizers a letter criticizing the event's environmental efforts as "completely insufficient" and warning that its potential impact on wildlife could violate state and federal laws banning harassment of threatened or endangered species.

She claimed animals such as manatees, crocodiles, and even the marine life at Miami Seaquarium — which includes dolphins, sea lions, and Lolita the whale — could be adversely affected by the booming music.

An Ultra lawyer this week wrote back defending the measures being taken by the festival and maintaining that protected species will not be harmed. He said the claims that any species or habitat could be harmed were made "without a scintilla of evidence" and added that no wildlife protection laws will be broken.

"Overall, the critique from Miami Waterkeeper does not raise any substantive issues warranting further response by the event organizers," wrote Rafe Petersen, an attorney with Holland & Knight. "That being said, the event organizers remain committed to environmental protection and will implement numerous environmental mitigation measures as well as a sustainability plan that will ensure the protection of Virginia Key."

Miami Waterkeeper found the festival's response to be lacking: “Ultra’s response to our letter mischaracterizes both our letter and the relevant law. By declining to seek permits for potential impacts to wildlife, they leave themselves exposed to liability if [wildlife death or injury] does occur," the organization said in an emailed statement. "Our letter provided suggestions to avoid potential impacts, which do not appear to have been addressed in their response.”

During today's news conference, Ultra organizers did not directly address the criticism but instead touted their leave-no-trace policy and commitment to leaving the island the same way they found it. The festival is introducing a recycling and composting program, which they say will divert some of the waste from landfills. More water stations have been added, with the goal of eliminating the need for 227,375 water bottles.

All cocktails will be served in paper or compostable, plant-based cups, and reusable souvenir cups will also be offered for sale. Water coolers will be available backstage. Food vendors will be barred from using plastic cups, food packaging, or cutlery and are encouraged to use BPI-certified, PFAS-free compostable food ware. Any water bottles that make it to festival grounds can be repurposed into an interactive art installation. Long term, Ultra is working on a plan to eliminate all single-use plastics at the event.

To create its plan for protecting Virginia Key's wildlife, the festival brought on environmental consultants from Cardno, a global consulting firm. Sharon Niemczyk, a senior consultant with the company, said during today's news conference that Ultra implemented all of Cardno's recommendations and "should be applauded."  
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas