- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

A recent rule revision by the federal government has ended a railroad embargo against carrying fireworks that threatened Fourth of July celebrations for small communities.

The Department of Homeland Security gave railroads an exemption from rules issued in February that require extensive background checks on employees who handle or transport explosives, including fireworks.

Railroads, which carry about 80 percent of the nation’s explosives, responded to the rules by refusing to carry any more fireworks or other explosives. They were concerned about costs and potential criminal liability for oversights in checking employee backgrounds.

Shipping containers of pyrotechnic-display fireworks were piling up at West Coast ports, the Unaffiliated Shippers of America said in comments filed with the federal Department of Transportation. The group represents 70 fireworks importers.

The new exemption ended the railroads’ embargo.

“They’re moving things again,” said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, referring to major railroads such as Norfolk Southern Railway, Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

“I think the new rule resolves some problems that railroads had,” Mr. White said. “It removes some of the uncertainties we had on the legalities of moving explosives.”

Before February, felons, the mentally ill and drug addicts were forbidden from handling explosives. The February regulations expanded the list to include illegal immigrants, former military personnel who were dishonorably discharged and people who renounced their U.S. citizenship.

Most fireworks used in the United States are imported from Asia. The $650 million-a-year explosives industry makes up only a small percentage of railroad business. Consumer fireworks, such as bottle rockets, were exempt from the explosives rule and were not affected by the rail embargo.

However, anyone who wanted a commercial fireworks display would have needed to arrange transportation by truck, which would have raised their costs as much as $8,000 per shipping container.

The rail embargo affected “primarily Midwestern, smaller, country-club- type shows,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Large cities, like Washington, have bigger budgets for fireworks displays that would not be as sensitive to a few thousand dollars more for transportation by truck.

Now that the rail embargo is ending, “It means we are far more optimistic that no community will get left behind,” Mrs. Heckman said.

The expanded background checks were a step toward phasing in the Safe Explosives Act that President Bush signed in November. The anti-terrorism legislation took full effect May 24.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued the expanded background check rules. However, the departments of Transportation and Homeland Security prevailed in a dispute over whether they were necessary.

Last week, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation asking them to resolve their dispute so that fireworks could be delivered for July 4 celebrations.

The new rule says existing Transportation Department regulations are adequate. Agency rules use the original list of banned employees. They would not impose greater costs or liability on railroads.

Considering the Transportation Department’s safeguards against improper handling of explosives, “the transportation of explosives via rail by certain persons described under the Safe Explosives Act does not pose a sufficient security risk warranting further regulation at this time,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.

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