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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Proposed Madison ordinance would change permitting requirements for fireworks displays
Ald. Marsha Rummel: 'We learned there was no clear accountability of local organizers in our ordinances.'
Ald. Marsha Rummel: 'We learned there was no clear accountability of local organizers in our ordinances.'

Marsha Rummel became more immersed in the planning for the annual Rhythm & Booms fireworks display after event organizers announced the show was relocating to Lake Monona. During discussions over environmental concerns, the east-side Madison alder found there were some gaps in the oversight of such events.

Rummel hopes to address these issues with an ordinance that changes the permitting requirements for fireworks displays. She and Alds. Lisa Subeck and Ledell Zellers will introduce their proposal to the Common Council on Tuesday, April 29.

"I did not set out to change the permitting procedures, but we learned that there was no clear accountability of local organizers in our ordinances and no requirement for cleanup plans," says Rummel, who provided a copy of the draft ordinance to Isthmus.

The proposal requires permits of both the event organizer and the company that stages the fireworks display -- the "fireworks shooter." Current law only requires a permit of the fireworks shooter.

The ordinance incorporates some of the recommendations made for the fireworks event last year by the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, and by the city's Committee on the Environment, most notably the requirement of a cleanup plan. There are permit fees and penalties for noncompliance. If enacted by June 17, the ordinance would apply to Rhythm & Booms this summer.

Rhythm & Booms is scheduled to launch June 28, the Saturday before July 4, from barges on Lake Monona. For two decades Rhythm & Booms was held at Warner Park, but in recent years the show faced growing neighborhood opposition, partly due to concerns over the fireworks' impact on the park's wetlands.

Madison Festivals Inc. took over Rhythm & Booms last year and announced that the 2014 show would move to Lake Monona. Concerns about environmental impacts remain, but others have been excited about the move. "I'm as convinced as ever that Rhythm & Booms is something that the downtown stakeholders are looking forward to," Ald. Mike Verveer said after attending one of three public meetings in March for the downtown and Marquette neighborhoods to learn about the move.

The proposed ordinance requires the event organizer to come up with a cleanup plan as a permit condition.

The city engineering department would approve and monitor cleanup plans for fireworks shot off over lakes or rivers; the parks superintendent would handle shows held in city parks. The fire department would monitor shows that don't fall under either of these categories, with enforcement carried out by the streets and building inspection divisions.

Despite their being no ordinance yet in place, Madison Festivals Inc. already has a cleanup plan for this year's Rhythm & Booms.

Environmental monitoring not required

The draft ordinance does not require the use of low or no-perchlorate fireworks as was recommended by both the Lakes and Watershed Commission and the city's environment committee. A 2012 study by the environment committee at Warner Park showed a spike in perchlorate, the rocket propellant used in fireworks, after Rhythm & Booms, but the wetland had returned to background levels within a few weeks.

This is consistent with other studies of fireworks displays over open water, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources limnologist Scott Van Egeren. Because of the rapid dissipation of the chemical, the state agency has no plans to regulate fireworks events based on water quality concerns, says Greg Searle, a water quality specialist at the DNR.

After last year's show, some park users remained dissatisfied with Madison Festivals Inc.'s cleanup job. Billie Kelsey, a UW sociology student and a member of the local fishing community, doubts that every piece of plastic, cardboard, and metal "dud" or "misfire" can be removed from Lake Monona before sinking. "I don't think they can [clean it up]," Kelsey says. Kelsey suggests a laser show as a more environmentally friendly way to celebrate the Fourth of July. The Lakes and Watershed Commission recommendations also encourage the consideration of such alternatives.

Depending on how strictly it is enforced, the proposed fireworks ordinance may address some of the concerns about pollutants getting into the lake. It requires the fireworks shooter to "make a complete and thorough search for any unfired fireworks or other devices which have failed to fire or function." The shooter's permit also prohibits the use of plastic caps on mortars if the display is near water, and the use of plastic shell casings "unless authorized by the Chief for safety purposes."

Rita Kelliher, president of Madison Festivals Inc., has said that plastic caps and linings have already been eliminated in the plans for this year's show.

Failure to comply with permit requirements carries a fine, starting at $250.

The proposed ordinance also requires that the fireworks shooter provide information on the net weight of explosives used and the chemical composition of the fireworks. This data could be used to inform study of the fireworks' environmental impacts.

The commission had also recommended monitoring the impacts on water quality and aquatic life as well as efficacy of litter cleanup. But neither the city nor county included funding for such monitoring in their budgets this year. The draft ordinance is also silent on environmental monitoring.

"The most important issue is to decide how to get monitoring paid for," says Rebecca Power, vice chair of the Lakes and Watershed Commission.

Despite the lack of funding for environmental study, Power says the city and county will both be tracking the cleanup after this year's show, and the commission will follow up with additional steps if needed: "Everyone's going to be watching."

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