Image: Pyrotechnics under fire
Workers ready a 1,264-shell fireworks show in Burlington, Iowa, along the Mississippi River. About 90 percent of all holiday displays are fired with volunteer help.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

Fireworks fans, rocket enthusiasts and government officials have made some headway in efforts to keep new homeland security regulations from putting a damper on legitimate launches — but some fiery traditions have fizzled out, at least for this Fourth of July.

The source of the controversy is the Safe Explosives Act, a measure that was signed into law last year and sparked a round of new rule-making by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF’s authority over interstate sales of explosive materials was expanded to sales within states as well.

At the time, congressional backers portrayed the act as striking a “reasonable balance” between post-9/11 security concerns and legitimate applications of things that go boom.

“We must take all possible steps to keep deadly explosives out of the hands of dangerous individuals seeking to threaten our livelihood and security,” one of the law’s sponsors, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said last year. “The Safe Explosives Act is designed solely in the interest of public safety, to close a loophole that could cause mass destruction of property and life.”

But since the law’s passage, experimenters and hobbyists have protested that the new permit requirements could strike a heavy blow against amateur rocketry rather than terrorism.

“Rocketeers are scared of the ATF just because of the way it has behaved in the past” said Mark Spute, executive director of the Utah-based Civilian Experimental Rocketry Test Area. “The ATF is just the bully on the block.”

Meanwhile, the fireworks industry had to scramble to adjust to the new permit system established under the act. Until early June, when the regulatory situation was clarified for rail transport of fireworks, it looked as if the federal government was shaping up as the grinch that stole the Fourth of July.

“This has been by far the most challenging and most difficult year for the professional pyrotechnics industry,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the Maryland-based American Pyrotechnics Association. “Everybody will sigh a big sigh of relief when we get to July 5th.”

The ATF has been scrambling as well. Agency spokesman Gary Comerford told MSNBC.com that the staff has been working overtime and on weekends to get thousands of new permits issued for Fourth of July fireworks — an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 additional permits on top of the typical level of 9,000 holders of licenses and permits for explosives.

As for the rocketry debate, Comerford said he had to be circumspect because of lawsuits filed by rocketeers against the ATF. But he noted that the agency was just trying to put the laws passed by Congress into practice.

“Since 9/11, obviously there have been some changes. ... We’ve got to find a balance there, and whoever makes this decision is trying to find a balance,” he said. “They’ll do the balancing, and we’ll do the enforcing of the law.”

Frantic for the fourth
On the fireworks front, the people most affected are individuals and private groups who present the kinds of displays you usually associate with a professional show. Consumer fireworks such as bottle rockets and Roman candles are not covered by the new rules, and there’s also no change for municipal shows.

The new rules, which took effect May 24, require purchasers to have a limited permit to buy explosives such as high-level fireworks, even when the material isn’t being delivered across state lines. Applicants have to go through a background check, and it could take up to 90 days for the ATF to approve the permit — although Comerford said the staff is currently processing permits in less time on a rush basis.

Heckman said the ATF generally did an “outstanding job” of getting out the word to professional pyrotechnicians. Nevertheless, uncertainty over the new rules led rail carriers to suspend fireworks shipments until they were assured in early June that they faced no new regulations. Since then, the carriers have been rushing to get the fireworks delivered in time for the Fourth, she said.

“It is nip and tuck,” Heckman said. “We are really down to the wire, but we are very hopeful.”

Some traditional fireworks presenters — like the Fairfield Golf & Country Club in Iowa — decided the hassle just wasn’t worth it this year. The country club’s board president, Pat Kessel, said the 40-year-plus tradition would go by the wayside, even though the ATF gave assurances that a permit would be expedited.

“Once people were working on the story, they said, ‘Well, we’ll try to get it done,’” Kessel recalled.

Kessel said the requirement of a background check rubbed him the wrong way.

“It’s not that neat of a deal,” he said. “You have to go to the jail, and a jailer takes you in, and you’re fingerprinted, and you have to have a mug shot, and they check your background. I’m not sure we’re any safer because of it. Maybe there are some things I don’t know or understand.”

Nevertheless, Kessel said the board might resume the fireworks tradition next year. “We’ve just got to get on it quicker,” he said.

Heckman agreed that next year would go much more smoothly for professionals as well as for amateur pyrotechnicians. “They’ll know the timing, and they’ll know what they’re expected to do,” she said.

Rocky road for rockets
In contrast, the situation facing rocketeers seems certain to get more tangled. Although Heckman isn’t directly involved in the controversy, she said it seemed as if the rocket regulations were getting “way too far out of control.” And the uncertainty is definitely hurting business, according to Ross Dunton, owner of Magnum Rockets in Mechanicsburg, Ohio.

“Two more months of this, and I won’t be Magnum anymore,” Dunton said. Last month, sales fell to $10,100, compared with a typical June figure of $50,000, he said.

“We’re the largest in the United States as far as sales go,” Dunton said. “So if I’m hurting, I know all the others are.”

The permit requirements apply to rocket motors that have more than 62.5 grams of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant, known as APCP. Anything with less oomph than that is classified as a toy, Comerford said.

Dunton said many of the rocket motors he sells were federally regulated even before the Safe Explosives Act. “But a lot of customers, even with the licenses, have quit buying them because they’re unsure of what’s going on,” he said.

In response to the outcry from rocketeers, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced a bill that would have exempted rockets from the regulations unless they were turned into potential weapons. Last month, the bill made it through the Judiciary Committee, but not before it was amended to put a 0.9-pound (405-gram) limit on propellant under the exemption.

Enzi said he would have preferred a full exemption, but voiced the hope that “the House will build and improve on what we’ve started in the Senate.”

Rocket enthusiasts, meanwhile, are wondering whether the amended bill might do more harm than good.

“We played the kiddie card big time — ‘let’s save rocketry for the kiddies’ — and what we got was a kiddie bill,” Spute said. “The problem is that it has completely sunk the experimental and amateur rocketeers.”

These experimenters tend to be engineering students or off-duty engineers who are working with rockets much bigger than your typical Estes Alpha. As an example, Spute pointed to aerospike rocket experiments at California State University at Long Beach — groundbreaking research that was put on hold due to the uncertainty over homeland security rules.

Rocketeers are worried that the APCP limit is set too low, and that the ATF could decide on its own that other propellants — say, liquid oxygen and ethanol — should be classified as explosives as well, with no statutory exemptions.

“A good argument can be made that you’re better off with nothing this year, rather than having a bad law and something that you’re stuck with for the next couple of years,” said John Wickman, who sells rocket supplies to amateurs as well as the federal government through separate Wyoming-based companies.

For now, the best that the rocketeers can hope for are holding actions — for example, delaying or easing the implementation of new ATF rules, pending new legislation. Another tactic might be to set up aerospace research organizations that would serve as the permit-holders for individual members. The alternative would be for rocket suppliers to bite the bullet and get each of their customers to go through the federal permit process — something the enthusiasts say is an unfair burden.

“They’re playing the homeland security card big time right now,” Spute said. “OK, somebody could conceivably use a model rocket to make a terrorist weapon. But you could just as easily make it out of virtually anything. I could go to Home Depot or Safeway ... you name it, and somebody could figure out a way to weaponize that material.”

In the meantime, Wickman worries that America will be losing a technological edge as well as a Fourth of July flash.

“It’s not just people going out there and flying on the weekends,” Wickman said. “I’ve been working on getting hands-on rocketry programs at the universities, and this type of regulation just cuts that right at the knees. We can’t have these graduates coming out just with computer software and book learning. They need that experience, building and launching rockets.”

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