KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The fuse is burning on a new argument against fireworks in at least one York County town.
Environmentalists are urging Kennebunkport residents to approve a consumer fireworks ban at the polls Tuesday, saying open use of the low-level explosives could drive endangered migratory birds from some of their last safe havens in Maine.
But a representative of one of the nation’s largest fireworks retailers, Phantom Fireworks, said the best way to protect rare birds from fireworks is through public education about appropriate uses for the products. Phantom Fireworks is scheduled to open its first Maine store in Scarborough, about 35 minutes away from Kennebunkport, next week.
The Maine Audubon Society is pushing for a “yes” vote on Question 6 on Kennebunkport’s municipal ballot, which would block the sale, use and possession with the intent to use consumer fireworks by individuals in the town. Town Manager Larry Mead told the BDN if the ban passes, it will carry fines ranging from $200 for a first offense of using fireworks up to $1,000 for a second offense of selling them.
Mead said Kennebunkport has a year-round population of about 3,500, which balloons to more than 8,000 residents in the summertime and more than 20,000 seasonal people in town regularly renting cabins, hotel rooms or campsites.
That summer swell in population is part of what worries bird advocates, who say that allowing festive vacationers to use fireworks in such an ecologically sensitive coastal area could be dangerous for piping plovers, which arrive yearly to nest on the southern Maine coast in late April. Breeding pairs produce three or four eggs each, which hatch after about a month. The chicks take another month to learn to fly, according to Maine Audubon.
“We’re certainly encouraging any town with piping plovers in their boundaries to consider banning consumer fireworks,” Maine Audubon wildlife biologist Susan Gallo said Thursday.
According to the organization, there are only 43 known nesting pairs of the migratory shorebird species left in Maine, where they’re listed as endangered. At the federal level, piping plovers are listed as threatened.
Maine Audubon officials note that well-planned and infrequent fireworks celebrations can be organized to have minimal affect on the birds, but allowing open use of the products could lead to less considerate beachfront explosions and nest abandonments by the skittish piping plovers.
“Up until this point, [the use of fireworks] has been almost an exclusively Fourth of July event; it’s been a town organizing one big event,” Gallo said. “Now with consumer fireworks, it’s not as big an event, but it’s unpredictable and potentially continuous throughout the summer. What does it mean now that people have this semi-unlimited access to fireworks throughout the summer? What is that going to mean for wildlife? Loons and plovers are particularly susceptible to the danger because of where they live, and because people will be firing them up over water in an effort to be safe.”
Maine Audubon officials point to a 2011 incident involving summer partiers using fireworks at Hills Beach in nearby Biddeford, during which they said a pair of nesting piping plovers abandoned their nest and left three eggs to die.
Legislation legalizing fireworks in Maine became effective on Jan. 1, and the York County towns of Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach are among many municipalities to have since implemented local bans. Others include Portland, South Portland, Brunswick and Bangor.
Bill Wiemer of the Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, which is slated to open southern Maine’s first fireworks shop this month in the Scarborough shopping complex anchored by Cabela’s, said his company is watching closely to see how Maine towns react to the newly legalized fireworks.
In most communities where fireworks have been banned, Wiemer — a member of the boards of both the American Pyrotechnics Association and the National Fire Protection Association — said the argument for outlawing the products is public safety. But he detailed his industry’s rigorous international testing procedures and noted that in 1994, with 117 million pounds of fireworks sold in the United States, the country saw 12,500 fireworks-related injuries.
With exhaustive public safety outreach efforts and increasingly strict import standards, he said, the number of fireworks-related injuries in America dropped to about 8,600 in 2010, despite a dramatic increase in the amount of fireworks sold — 213.9 million pounds that year.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the safety of fireworks,” Wiemer said Thursday, but “this is the first time I’ve heard the argument about migratory birds.”
He said he’s anecdotally aware of places in the country where firecrackers and other related products have been used to scare away pest birds from residences, crops or aquacultures, and he said in those cases the practice is ineffective unless the small explosions happen in “very close proximities to the birds.”
“I just don’t think it’s a valid argument [to outlaw fireworks because they might scare away birds] unless people are firing the fireworks directly at the birds,” Wiemer said. “I don’t think you’re going to scare away birds with fireworks unless you’re intending to scare them away.
“An informed public is the best path to ensure the safe use of fireworks,” he added.
On that note, Maine Audubon officials are eager to inform the public that using fireworks to bother piping plovers could come with expensive consequences, too.
“According to federal law, people may face serious legal action including potential jail time of up to one year and fines of up to $25,000 for intentionally killing or harming piping plovers and their nests,” the organization said in a recent announcement.