- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is trying to free a bureaucratic log-jam that threatens to cancel many Fourth of July fireworks celebrations across the country.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, sent a letter to the departments of Justice, Transportation and Homeland Security urging them to immediately resolve the interagency dispute over the shipping of explosives by rail.

New federal transportation rules, issued in February, impose criminal penalties if freight companies allow employees to handle explosives when they haven’t been subjected to extensive background checks. Railroad companies haven’t wanted to take the risk of breaking the law, so they’ve refused to carry the fireworks.

“Currently, the lack of action on rail transport threatens to prevent the delivery of fireworks for the Fourth of July in many areas of the country,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote. “I ask that you move to issue interim regulations on rail.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner set a deadline for action of last Friday.

Terry Shawn, a spokesman for Mr. Sensenbrenner, said late Friday that his office hadn’t yet received an answer.

The new rules governing the transportation of explosives were written into the Safe Explosives Act, part of the Homeland Security Act signed by President Bush in November.

A temporary waiver or clarification of the explosives rule as it pertains to fireworks is needed in the next few days to prevent widespread disruption of fireworks displays in municipalities across the country.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, the leading trade association of the fireworks industry, has been lobbying for a fireworks exemption to the rule since it was first issued four months ago. With just weeks to go before Independence Day, there’s little time to lose now, she said.

“We’re long overdue. We’re basically at the close of our window,” Mrs. Heckman said. “If the railroads can resume early this week, we just might have a prayer of fulfilling every community’s Fourth of July show this year.”

About 80 percent of the nation’s commercial explosives — which includes fireworks as well as explosives used in mining and civil engineering — are transported by rail.

Shipments from Asia and Europe have been sitting in Atlantic and Pacific ports for weeks, Mrs. Heckman said, because shipping by truck is more expensive and dangerous.

“It’s an issue of public safety,” Mrs. Heckman said, adding that transporting fireworks on the highways is more dangerous because the chances of accidents are greater.

Only two trucking companies in the country are willing to haul fireworks in their rigs, Mrs. Heckman said, which means that many fireworks shipping companies will take care of their bigger clients first — perhaps leaving many smaller communities in the lurch come July 4.

“The smaller shows are at risk,” Mrs. Heckman said. “The big cities with the spectacular shows are going to get their products.”

The crux of the problem, says Mr. Sensenbrenner, is that none of the three federal departments that Congress gave jurisdiction over the shipment of explosives is willing to make a decision until one of the others does.

“Regulations concerning the transport by rail and other matters have been mired in interagency disputes,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote. “The lack of quick and decisive action has in some instances disrupted commerce while also raising serious concerns about potential security threats in transportation.”

Even if fireworks display firms get their explosives in the coming weeks, they are already way behind schedule putting the displays together, Mrs. Heckman said.

Forced to rush their orders, the chance of accidents might also increase.

“There could be mistakes made and we’re very concerned about that,” Mrs. Heckman said. “Our products, in all fairness, are not a threat, yet the industry is being crippled because we’re trying to comply with the law.”

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