The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 12, 2012

Fireworks bill back, but no sparks yet

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Clifford Rotz is trying to ignite interest anew in legalizing the full gamut of fireworks in West Virginia, touting his latest proposal as one that enhances safety and creates jobs.

Last winter, a similar measure, HB4102, offered by House Government Organization Chairman Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, and nine others, cleared that panel.

But the fuse soon burned out when the measure arrived in the judiciary committee.

“It’s conventional wisdom that one should leave the fireworks to the professionals and you shouldn’t be using fireworks, that they’re not suitable for individual use,” Rotz, a retired chemical engineer in Dunbar told Judiciary Subcommittee B Tuesday.

“I would point out, just in the past Fourth of July, three children died in New York state in a boating accident while families were watching fireworks.”

Ten others suffered injuries in a fireworks display in Liberty Park, Utah, he told the committee.

“Even in Beckley, a pedestrian was hit by a car while walking back from a fireworks display,” Rotz said.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission found zero deaths attributed to legal fireworks this year, he said.

“One could make the argument that maybe people should be shooting fireworks in their backyards,” Rotz said.

Before he spoke, however, Sam Love, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Fireman’s Association, said a recent vote found that volunteer firefighters are “almost unanimously” opposed to legalizing anything more than the so-called “sparklers,” authorized for individual use back in 1995.

“They’ve seen too many accidents on calls they received about fireworks,” Love said.

“One fire company in New Cumberland was holding a fireworks display and badly injured somebody. They’re adamantly against it.”

In mind for legalization by Rotz would be rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, and a combination of those, known as “cakes.”

Explosive devices such as M-80s and cherry bombs would remain disallowed.

Rotz has worked on one form or another of such a bill since 2008. Three years ago, one bill cleared the Senate but died in the House.

“I’ve made some progress from year to year,” he said, shortly before addressing the subcommittee.

“One of my problems is my sponsors keep retiring or keep getting knocked out in the elections. Every two years, it’s a little bit like starting over. I think I have enough support.”

Rotz told the subcommittee that 22 states have approved fireworks as sanctioned by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

The pending bill, not acted upon by the subcommittee, would impose a 6 percent safety fee that goes directly to the state fire marshal’s office. In earlier discussions, Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis adamantly resisted the legislation.

On top of the fee, the state would collect the customary 6 percent sales tax.

Rotz acknowledged that any benefit to firefighters would be small to each individual volunteer unit.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, seized on this and said, “All we’re doing is creating another layer of government and bureaucracy.”

Rotz said his bill requires any buyer to be at least 16 and restricts the use of fireworks on public and private property to permission from the owners.

It would bar such use from a building or vehicle, or by anyone under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Penalties for violations would be a maximum $100 fine or 90 days in jail, or both.

Rotz read newspaper headlines from states that recently legalized fireworks, noting stories accompanying them found no surge in injuries.

“People who are shooting fireworks legally tend to read the directions, tend to follow safety procedures, maybe use goggles, watch distances and make sure spectators aren’t too close,” he said.

“People shooting fireworks illegally are often doing it from vehicles or in a rapid, clandestine fashion, not following safety principles.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com