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Fireworks: A “Boom” Or A “Dud” For Arizona

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Environmental & Regulatory Policy Advisor
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by Amanda A. Reeve

The Arizona Legislature is on the cusp of passing legislation that will expand the days on which consumer fireworks are permitted for sale and use in Arizona. However, what some may think will serve as a boom for sales, just might end up being a dud for Arizona’s economy. Unfortunately, as fun as consumer fireworks may be for the family, they do present real challenges that can potentially impact a state’s economic development, environment, and the health of its residents.

Currently, consumer fireworks are permitted for use twice a year in accordance with Arizona law: June 24th through July 6th in celebration of Independence Day; and December 24th through January 3rd in honor of the Holiday Season. Senate Bill 1348 (“SB1348”) proposes to expand those dates to include: the days of April 25th through May 7th in honor of Cinco de Mayo celebrations; and the five days before the first day, and the two days after the last day, of Diwali – a culturally and religiously significant five-day festival of lights in India that typically occurs in the October-November timeframe. Granted, a total of 49 days out of the year to use consumer fireworks doesn’t seem like it would be a problem – until it is put in the context of the Clean Air Act, in which a single exceedance of a National Ambient Air Quality Standard (“NAAQS”) at any one ambient air monitor can be a significant concern for the air regulating agencies, especially in Arizona.

The topography, climate and geography of the Intermountain West Region (“IWR”) States  – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and the high-elevation portions of eastern California – present unique environmental complications, especially for air quality. During the cold-season months, a particularly challenging weather phenomenon known as a temperature inversion – in which the layer of air higher in the atmosphere is warmer than the air lower in the atmosphere – can result in an unhealthy level of fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”) pollutant emissions in the ambient air. During the warm/hot-season months, the IWR States experience daunting challenges with ozone, a global pollutant. And, throughout much of the year, whether the winds or the stagnant air conditions are to blame, course particulate matter (“PM10”) emissions cause a great deal of angst, especially for Arizona and Nevada. Unfortunately, the emissions from fireworks contribute to all three of these criteria pollutants.

To understand the impact on ambient air quality and determine which pollutants are emitted by firework discharges, two case studies – one in 2010, and the other in 2015 – were conducted in India before and during the Diwali festival. Both studies revealed significant increases in the average concentrations of PM2.5, PM10, nitrogen oxides (“NOx”) – an ozone precursor emission – and also observed other pollutant emissions during Diwali than on the days preceding the festival. These findings do not bode well at all for Arizona – or Utah for that matter – when it comes to expanding the use of consumer fireworks, especially in observance of Diwali which occurs during the cooler months when temperature inversions are prevalent.

Temperature inversions act much like a lid on a container, the warmer layer of air at the higher altitude traps the cooler air and PM2.5 pollutant emissions, keeping them contained closer to the ground and greatly impacting the quality of the ambient air. Maricopa County – the largest county in Arizona and the fourth largest county in the nation – conducted a speciation study in 2013-2014 to conclusively identify the contributing source(s) of PM2.5 emissions causing exceedances at the ambient air monitors on Christmas and New Year’s Day – two days in which Maricopa County nearly always experiences temperature inversions. While fireplaces were the clear contributor of PM2.5 emissions on Christmas Day, fireworks were the primary culprit for the emission on New Year’s Day. The Maricopa County Air Quality Department explains that the inversion layer easily traps and prevents the dissipation of pollutant emissions from consumer fireworks since they are ignited closer to the ground; whereas commercial firework displays – those publicly performed by professionals – are typically ignited above the inversion layer, thereby lessening their emissions impact on the ambient air below. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (“UDEQ”) has also experienced that the “significant spikes in particulate matter concentrations on July 4th,…are mostly related to the smaller, neighborhood fireworks…”.

However, furthering their studies, UDEQ has concluded that fireworks largely emit both PM2.5 and PM10, as well as other pollutants; and are problematic throughout the year for air quality conditions. In fact, just last year, Utah passed House Bill 38 which imposes far more stringent regulations on the use of consumer fireworks than even current Arizona law. Previously, Utah law permitted the use of fireworks a total of 16 days; but last year those days were reduced to a total of 11. Additionally, Utah puts a curfew on when fireworks may be discharged during those days: 11:00 AM until 11:00 PM for most of the days.  However, there are two occasions throughout the year when fireworks are permitted for use from 11:00 AM until 1:00 AM of the following day; and, another two occasions on which their use is permitted from 11:00 AM until Midnight. Arizona has no such curfew.

Fireworks aside, Arizona faces other challenges throughout the year with PM2.5, PM10 and Ozone. Seven Arizona counties currently have nonattainment areas for one or more of those criteria pollutant(s). In addition to these counties, others in Arizona are also struggling – mostly due to pollutant emissions that originate elsewhere and/or are outside of the jurisdictional authority of Arizona’s state and local air regulating agencies. The climate-related challenges impacting the Intermountain West Region States, like Arizona, that could put at risk the health and welfare of the State and its residents are a factor.  Thus, while increasing the days on which the use of consumer fireworks is permissible in Arizona will likely be a boom for sales, there is a risk of it being short-lived and an eventual dud overall. After all, a nonattainment area designation brings costly regulations, including ones that could very well lead to the outright banning of consumer fireworks.