The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

July 24, 2012

Fireworks bill gets off with a bang at interims

CHARLESTON — Ridding the West Virginia landscape of illegal fireworks was compared Monday to the futile endeavor of taking all the rice out of China.

“It’s more or less impossible now to enforce the laws in place,” Chief Deputy Anthony Carrico of the fire marshal’s office told a legislative panel.

Even so, Carrico emphasized his agency stands “vehemently opposed” to the legalization of Class C fireworks.

“We catch a few, when we find them and when we can catch them,” Carrico told Judiciary Subcommittee B at the start of July interims.

“It is very prevalent.”

Before he spoke, retired Dow Chemical engineer Cliff Rotz touted failed HB4102 that would have allowed more potent fireworks to be sold in West Virginia.

That bill cleared the House Government Organization Committee last winter with one dissenting vote, but never surfaced for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

In 1995, the state authorized the sale of innocuous fireworks known as “sparkling devices,” and since then, a number of attempts have been made in the Legislature to expand the range to include the louder, more spectacular variety

Specifically, this would include rockets, Roman candles, shells, firecrackers and multiple combinations of the four, known in the industry as “cakes,” Rotz explained.

Twenty-one states now permit the sale of these, and within the past seven years, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine and Michigan have come on board.

When used properly, Rotz said such fireworks are safe, and he provided statistics showing a dramatic decrease in injuries in states that have legalized them.

“Fireworks are 10 times as safe as they were 35 years ago,” Rotz maintained.

Carrico wasn’t convinced, however, and showed a video of a tent in Chester, where only the less powerful and legal fireworks were to be sold.

In what was deemed an accident, the tent caught fire, spawning a spectacular fire and impromptu fireworks display. Fortunately, the deputy fire marshal told the legislators, no one was hurt.

Until the scene was cleared, a nearby highway was closed.

“Even under some regulation, accidents do happen like this,” Carrico said.

“The state fire marshal’s office stands vehemently opposed to the legalization of consumer fireworks for the obvious reasons.”

Rotz told an informal poll taken two years ago involving 50 patrons of a “biker bar,” and a like number at a church gathering, and result was that 81 percent favor legalization.

“Popular does not necessarily translate into safe,” Carrico said.

Rotz emphasized that only the five types of fireworks would become legal, and that excludes M-80s and cherry bombs, which are taboo everywhere in the country.

In the same poll, Rotz said those favoring legalization showed a “resentment” that neighboring states are taking money out of West Virginia.

Rotz said figures show consumers in other states are handling the potent fireworks more cautiously because of legalization.

Under the bill, consumers would not only pay the traditional 6 percent sales tax, but a special 10 percent safety fee as well. Proceeds would be divvied up between the fire marshal’s office and volunteer firefighters.

Even with the prospect of more cash into their coffers, lobbyist Sam Love with the West Virginia Fireman’s Association says his group is neutral on the idea, at least until its August convention.

Based on a population comparison with Indiana, he said West Virginia could expect $14.8 million sales, and the safety fee alone would translate into $1.5 million for the state.

What’s more, he said, about 300 new jobs would be created.

Carrico said his agency only has 10 inspectors to cover 55 counties.

When illegal fireworks are discharged, he said, the fire marshal’s office often gets calls from annoyed neighbors.

“No one seems to be interested at the local level to go and enforce the law,” he said.

“We try to be there. It’s hard to cover 55 counties.”

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