U-turn on fireworks: Cedar Rapids committee supports ban, restricting sales

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A City Council subcommittee on Tuesday recommended an outright ban on fireworks and restricting sales to industrial zones in city limits.

This comes 10 weeks after Iowa’s second-largest city adopted the most lax rules allowed in the state on firework use, leading to round-the-clock explosions, angry residents, hundreds of police calls, fires, litter, and air quality issues.

“It’s not healthy,” said Barb Buchanan, 69, who lives in Wellington Heights. “Neighborhoods sound like war zones. Veterans, animals, air quality, sound quality — these should be concerns for anyone.”

She applauded the public safety and youth services subcommittee, which voted 3-0 to propose strict controls on firework use and sales.

The recommendation will go to the Cedar Rapids City Council for approval at its next meeting, 4 p.m. Aug. 22 at City Hall, 101 First St. SE.

The city voted 5-2 on May 26 resolving to follow the lead of a newly adopted state law, which legalized consumer fireworks sales and use around Fourth of July and New Year’s, from June 1 through July 8 and between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3, generally from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Some cities opted to ban or limit fireworks use, which was allowed by the new law.

“Our state Legislature passed the use and sales of fireworks citing Iowa as a rural state, and I, as an official in Iowa’s second largest city, cannot in good conscience support the continued use of fireworks within Cedar Rapids city limits,” said Susie Weinacht, a council woman and chairwoman of the committee.

Larger urban areas in Missouri, which allows legal fireworks, have banned the use, including Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield, Columbia and Jefferson City, according to city research. Weinacht said Cedar Rapids should follow suit, noting fireworks aren’t appropriate here given the density of homes in many neighborhoods.

Cedar Rapids had among the most fireworks vendors in the state with 41 permits for permanent or temporary locations, and police reported 17 others were selling without a permit and seven tents didn’t have proper permits.

Restricting sales to industrial zones, which passed the legal test in Des Moines, would mitigate safety and aesthetic issues, according to the recommendation.

The committee heard testimony from residents and evidence from public safety, housing and utilities officials for the city.

Steve Hershner, the city utilities director, presented data showing elevated levels of percolate — a contaminant found in fireworks that can disrupt the thyroid — in two soil samples taken on July 5 near a water well by the Ellis Boat Harbor and Ellis Park where fireworks were frequently detonated.

Meanwhile hourly air quality reports showed the concentration of contaminants elevated in the early days fireworks vendors began selling, and contaminants spiked higher to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and “unhealthy” for everyone in the days around Fourth of July, with peaks in the late night hours and elevated levels persisting until morning.

“This shows the impact of smoke and byproducts carry over to the next day,” Hershner said.

Hershner said the difference between regulated professional fireworks for special events, which have more explosive punch, is the permit holder must clean up afterwords. Litter permeated sites where unregulated fireworks were rampant, which contributed to the elevated levels of contaminants, he said.

Public safety officials identified issues with vendors as well as fireworks users.

Calls for police service and computer dispatched messages about fireworks climbed to 946 during from June 1 to July 8, compared with 486 during that time in 2016, according to police data. Three building fires, two Dumpster fires, and fireworks were thrown at a house during the most recent period of legalized fireworks. Fire officials responded to four medical calls, including a 14 year old with serious burns, and 21 fireworks-related patients visited UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s and Mercy Medical Center.

A troubling data point was 33 police calls for gunshots fired that turned out to be fireworks, and two no-calls where residents thought fireworks were going off but it turned out gun shots were fired, said Greg Buelow, a public safety spokesman.

The police strategy to enforce the fireworks ban includes assembling a team dedicated to investigate fireworks violations and file charges carrying penalties of up to $650. Also, properties subject to frequent calls for service related to fireworks could be charged for police time under the city’s SAFE-CR nuisance property program.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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