Fighting Over Fireworks
Just two years after consumer fireworks were legalized in Maine, a move is under way to ban them again.
By Edgar Allen Beem
The 126th Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee considered five bills earlier this year that would restrict the use of consumer fireworks or ban them altogether. This after the 125th Maine Legislature legalized fireworks, which were banned in 1949, just two years ago.
“We have the exact same concerns today that they had back in the 1940s,” says Representative Michel Lajoie (D-Lewiston), a retired Lewiston fire chief, ticking off the list of concerns: injuries, fires, and disturbing wildlife, farm animals, combat veterans, and the peace in general. “The product we were putting on the market was a volatile, dangerous product that is a major nuisance in regard to noise,” says Lajoie, explaining why he proposed LD 111, a bill to reinstate the statewide fireworks ban.
Other bills sought to require local permits, prohibit fireworks after 9 p.m., establish fireworks-free zones, and create one-mile buffer zones around farms.
But Steven Marson, president of Central Maine Pyrotechnics in Farmingdale and owner of the five-store Pyro City retail fireworks chain, argues that the state shouldn’t pull the rug out from under the consumer fireworks stores that became a $4 million to $7 million a year industry overnight. “I made a $4 million investment last year,” says Marson. “We spent $970,000 on wages, paid vendors $2.4 million, and paid $280,000 to the state.”
By Marson’s calculation of the trickle-down effect, consumer fireworks had a $26 million impact on the Maine economy in the year since they have been made legal. Now he worries the legislature may put him out of business. “As fast as the law went into effect,” he says, “it can go out again, as we have seen.”
And that is exactly why Representative Lajoie finds it “quite naïve” for anyone to have made a substantial investment in fireworks retailing without “looking back into the history of why fireworks were eliminated in this state.”
Fireworks have been strictly regulated in Maine since statehood. On February 20, 1821, the new state legislature approved a law stating, “That if any person shall offer for sale, set fire to, or throw any lighted cracker, squib, rocket, or serpent within this State, without the license of the Selectmen of the several towns, respectively, first obtained thereof; he shall forfeit for every such offence, the sum of five dollars.”
In proposing the statewide ban in 1949, Representative Frederic H. Bird of Rockland explained that he wanted “to try to correct an intolerable situation that seems to take place in this state every Fourth of July.”
“The individual towns have tried to regulate the sale and use of fireworks,” Bird said, “while the adjoining towns have no regulations and, therefore, the efforts of towns with regulations are pretty much nullified.”
Since LD 83, An Act to Legalize the Sale, Possession and Use of Fireworks passed the State House of Representatives 76-61 and the Maine Senate 20-12 and was signed into law on July 1, 2011, fifty-seven Maine cities and towns have exercised the local option of banning or restricting the sale and use of fireworks. So Maine finds itself pretty much back where it was in 1949, with a mishmash of local regulations that are difficult to enforce.
Only three states (Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) ban the sale of all consumer fireworks. Maine had been one of the four states (along with Illinois, Iowa, and New York) that only allowed sparklers and a few small novelties. Seventeen states only allow non-aerial and non-explosive consumer fireworks such as fountains and sparklers, but Maine is now one of twenty-four states where just about anything goes.
Of course, as Steve Marson will tell you, these are not your grandfather’s fireworks. “Cherry bombs, bottle rockets, M-80s, and quarter sticks of dynamite are outlawed all over the country,” says Marson.
What Maine legalized in 2011 were consumer fireworks, defined as fireworks with fewer than 500 grams of explosive composition. Commercial or display fireworks with more than 500 grams of explosive content have been legal all along if used by a licensed pyrotechnician.
Maine still bans bottle rockets, aerial spinners, and missile-type fireworks, but a visit to any of the eighteen fireworks stores in Maine will demonstrate that Maine fireworks enthusiasts can still get plenty of bangs for their bucks. Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough is a veritable fireworks supermarket with aisles filled with firecrackers, fountains, Roman candles, single-shots, reloadables, fan cakes, and assortment packs ranging from $60 to $1,400. Scarborough is a town where the sale of fireworks is legal year-round, but fireworks can only be set off five days a year — July 3, 4, and 5, December 31, and January 1. That there are two fireworks stores in Scarborough can be explained by the fact that most of the other cities and towns in Greater Portland prohibit fireworks.
The fact that fireworks use is only permitted in Scarborough around the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day is not so surprising, however. Marson reports that his Pyro City stores in Edgecomb, Ellsworth, Manchester, Presque Isle, and Winslow do “75 percent of the business in four weeks.”
The stores feature video kiosks where customers can scan potential purchases to see and hear what they look and sound like when fired. For those who can’t make up their minds, there are fireworks sets such as The Godfather assortment, an hour and half’s worth of bangs, booms, cracks, pops, and sizzle for just $475.
So why would the Maine State Legislature want to spoil all that fun? Marson thinks “it’s all political.”
“The Democrats don’t like the governor,” says Marson, who met with Governor Paul LePage in April to complain about the legislative proposals to ban or restrict consumer fireworks.
Representative Lajoie insists legislating fireworks is a bipartisan matter. But he does allow that the reason fireworks were legalized in 2011 in the first place was because “the conditions were right,” meaning the poor economy allowed Republicans, who had taken control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1974, to sell legalizing fireworks as a jobs bill. A year later, Governor LePage’s controversial style had alienated enough voters that Republicans lost control of the legislature and Democrats sought to reinstate the longstanding fireworks ban. “It’s not about the governor,” says Lajoie. “My concerns are about injuries and fires.”
State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas reported to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that in 2012 there were eleven fireworks-related property fires, thirty-eight wild land fires attributed to fireworks, and twenty fireworks-related injuries requiring hospital treatment.
That’s actually not too bad compared to 1949, when fireworks ban proponent Senator Frederick N. Allen of Portland testified that on the Fourth of July in 1948, Bangor’s Eastern Maine General Hospital alone had treated “twenty-seven cases hands and arms, one case about the wrist, six cases on the legs, five cases on the face, cheeks, lips, eyes, and so forth, one case of hip burns, two cases of burns on the arms, one case of chest burns.”
Allen also made the argument that a fireworks ban would benefit combat veterans. “There are 90,000 Maine veterans,” he said, “and I wonder about the veterans of both wars who have come back shell-shocked in one way or another. I am sure they do not exactly appreciate the firing off of fireworks.”
In 2013, LD 168, An Act to Establish Reasonable Restrictions on the Use of Fireworks, specified “effects on veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for whom exposure to fireworks carries the potential to trigger debilitating symptoms” as one factor that might warrant restricting fireworks use.
While it has been fairly well documented in the popular press that fireworks, especially consumer fireworks that are unpredictable and therefore cannot easily be avoided, do hold the potential for inducing anxiety and flashbacks in combat veterans, Peter W. Ogden, director of Maine’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services, requested that “any language that the committee may put forth does not include any reference to the effects on veterans.”
Ogden says he is concerned about stigmatizing veterans who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I don’t have a problem banning fireworks,” says Ogden. “I just don’t want veterans used for someone’s agenda.”
Though Maine is a far less agricultural state than it once was, there was more testimony on LD 456, An Act to Protect Farm Animals from Noise from the Discharge of Fireworks or Explosives, a proposal to prohibit the use of fireworks within a mile of a field or pasture where livestock is kept, than there was on the bill to ban fireworks altogether. Many of those who spoke in favor of the one-mile buffer were horse owners.
Wendy Gray, who stables thirty horses at Gray’s Equestrian Training in Bowdoinham, complained to the legislature that “fireworks and explosives going off several times a week” were spooking her horses and making it dangerous to give riding lessons. But Pyro City’s Marson counters that Gray should have other legal remedies than a one-mile buffer as the problem is being caused by a neighbor with a personal grudge against her, a point Gray concedes. She still hopes the state will act, because the town of Bowdoinham has not.
“My business was here before fireworks were legal,” says Gray. “Something needs to be done, and quick. I don’t know if I can wait for next year.”
Gray may well have to wait until next year for a resolution to her fireworks problem, because the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee decided in early April to kill most of the fireworks bills and carry over LD 168 as a concept bill to the January 2014 session.
“We postponed it until next year,” explains Lajoie, “to give both sides time to see how a second year of fireworks materializes. We’ll have better numbers then.”
“They are doing this,” adds Ericka Dodge, communications director for Maine Senate Democrats, “because the industry has asked for another summer’s worth of data to work from and analyze.”
Meanwhile, Marson has filed complaints with legislative leadership charging that the committee changed the time of a key meeting without notifying him. He is loaded for bear. “They didn’t make a mistake. They know what they did,” says Marson. “I’m not going to tolerate it as a citizen, as a businessman, or as a Democrat.”
Lajoie stands firm on his commitment to restore Maine’s ban on fireworks. “The give and take is going to be about give,” vows Lajoie, “because there are really no restrictions on the use of consumer fireworks at this time.”
And so the stage is set for yet another round in Maine’s ongoing blowup over fireworks.