- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

The nation’s Fourth of July celebrations are being threatened by the railroad industry’s refusal to transport fireworks and other explosives.

The industry says the money it makes from hauling explosives is not worth the legal risk under new federal regulations.

The rules, issued in February, would double the number of background checks railroad and other transportation companies must do on employees. The employers could face criminal penalties if unauthorized workers are allowed to handle or transport explosives.

“The railroads feel it subjects them to potential criminal liability and that’s not something they’re going to do,” said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the trade group for the nation’s largest railroads.

About 80 percent of the nation’s commercial explosives are transported by rail. In addition to fireworks, explosives are used, among other things, for mining and civil engineering. They represent a $650 million-a-year industry. Military explosives are exempt from the regulations.

The embargo is damaging the pyrotechnics-display industry during what is normally its busiest time before the Fourth of July, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. It also is hurting manufacturers in Asia, where many of the best fireworks are produced.

“Our commerce basically came to a halt,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the Bethesda-based association.

At least 23 containers of pyrotechnic-display fireworks are sitting at West Coast ports, Bengt Henriksen, president of the Unaffiliated Shippers of America, said in comments filed with the federal Department of Transportation. The group represents 70 fireworks importers.

“If this is not disruption of commerce, I don’t know what is,” Mr. Henriksen said.

In response to the rail embargo, fireworks-display companies are being forced to arrange alternate transportation by truck, which is raising their shipping costs by as much as $8,000 per container. Small fireworks-display companies cannot afford the higher costs.

“It’s the small guys that really felt the brunt of this,” Miss Heckman said.

Felix Grucci, whose family owns the large fireworks-display company Fireworks by Grucci, expects costs to rise because of the impasse.

“In some cases, it could make the difference between small communities either having a fireworks display or having to pass on it this year.”

The Long Island, N.Y., company is bidding for the National Mall contract. The National Park Service plans to announce the winning bid as soon as next week.

Firecrackers and other small, backyard fireworks are not affected by the regulations.

A few trucking companies also are refusing to carry the explosives because of liability concerns, but not enough to interrupt the flow of over-the-road transport of pyrotechnics, according to the Alexandria-based American Trucking Associations.

The regulations are a step toward phasing in the Safe Explosives Act that President Bush signed in November. The act takes full effect May 24.

“It was aimed at keeping explosives out of the hands of people who might use explosives for terrorism,” said Lynn Becker, spokeswoman for Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation.

Previous law forbade felons, the mentally ill and drug addicts from handling explosives. New regulations expand the list to include illegal immigrants, former military personnel who were dishonorably discharged and people who have renounced their citizenship.

“We do background checks before people are hired. But things can be concealed, and then you’re liable,” Mr. White said.

On May 2, the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Transportation issued a ruling that clarified the DOT’s authority over explosives-transport issues.

Railroads say they need the DOT to relieve them of liability for any oversights they might make in checking employees’ backgrounds before they will end the embargo.

“We have so many different people operating the trains,” said Dan Murphy, spokesman for CSX Transportation, a participant in the embargo. CSX is the largest railroad on the East Coast.

Mr. Henriksen of the shippers group questioned the logic of forcing the shipments onto trucks, where they could more easily be hijacked or damaged.

“The answer is obviously the opposite,” Mr. Henriksen said. “If you’re looking for safety, you should leave it on rail.”

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