- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

GILLETTE, Wyo. - The fireworks show drew cheers from onlookers who could forget their worldly worries as they viewed the blazing lights and felt the jaw-rattling booms.

Pyrotechnic enthusiasts, who put the show on as part of their recent annual convention, don’t have that luxury. Stricter federal controls aimed at bolstering homeland security and restricting access to explosives also apply to fireworks.

Officials say that makes it more difficult to give the public what it wants at a time when interest in fireworks is skyrocketing.

“You really have to want to stay in the business because it’s such a burden,” Ed Vanasek of Belle Plaine, Minn., said as the professionals, novices and wannabes who make up Pyrotechnics Guild International met to talk business and shoot off fireworks.

Mr. Vanasek considers the fireworks his company makes and ignites at ball games and parties to be entertainment, not explosives and certainly not a possible tool for terror.

The changing environment was evident in the convention agenda, with sessions including “The ATF & You” held along with more traditional offerings such as the basics of fireworks. The ATF is the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The industry says it’s already heavily regulated and safe.

“What we do is just not a threat to national security,” said John Steinberg, PGI’s president. “Just try to get that through to Congress.”

Meanwhile, the pyrotechnics industry is growing, a trend officials say began before the terror attacks in 2001 that helped stir patriotism and interest in fireworks that are now common at baseball fields, wedding parties and corporate conventions.

Industry revenues totaled $725 million in 2002, up from the previous high of $650 million in 2001, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group representing manufacturers, retailers, importers and public display firms, among others.

But much of the growth has been on the retail end, said the association’s executive director, Julie Heckman. The regulatory burden, she said, has fallen largely on public display operators. “This year by far,” she said, “has been the most challenging regulatory year.”

The federal Safe Explosives Act, for example, imposed stricter controls on handling fireworks and other explosives. These include a permit from the ATF for fireworks displays held by private clubs, civic groups and others. Getting one means a background check and fingerprints of those handling the display, ATF spokesman Gary Comerford said.

Pyrotechnic firms applying for licenses to manufacture or sell fireworks must give the ATF names and other identifying information of employees handling explosives so the agency can do background checks.

Mr. Comerford said the legislation is meant to limit access to explosives. “Fireworks are more of a dangerous product than most people think,” he said.

Miss Heckman said regulations are a burden for companies that also must keep up on requirements and compliance on transportation, health and safety and other issues.

“There have been smaller companies that said: ‘This is enough. I can’t keep up with the paperwork and requirements,’” she said.

“In my opinion, we have done nothing to eliminate the real threats out there by putting more regulations on an already heavily-regulated industry,” she said. “All these companies are in the entertainment business.”

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