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Commissioner lambastes fireworks

A few weeks ago, Pinellas County neighborhoods erupted with sparkling lights and booming explosions as residents celebrated the Fourth of July.

County Commissioner Ken Welch drove around looking at the fireworks and fumed. Everywhere, he saw people breaking the law.

"The law is just being blatantly ignored," Welch said Wednesday. "It's more than a noise hazard. It's a safety hazard."

Welch wants county lawyers and lobbyists to see what Pinellas can do to tighten restrictions on individuals setting off fireworks.

But that's easier said than done, county officials said.

"We're probably going to have a hard time regulating in that area," said Jim Bennett, chief assistant county attorney.

Bennett and Elithia Stanfield, the county's lobbyist, said they are studying what the county can do. But Bennett said it's unlikely the county can tighten its own rules without running afoul of state law.

Stanfield said efforts to change state law have faced stiff opposition from the fireworks industry.

"It's a hard thing to deal with," she said. "Yes, it is illegal. But most people expect, on the Fourth of July, you go get your fireworks and you set them off."

Tom Hromyak, manager at Phantom Fireworks in Clearwater, said that banning fireworks could have unintended consequences.

"In states where they do not allow consumer fireworks, you find people bringing in illegal explosives that are much more dangerous," he said. "Here we make sure that people understand to have the bucket of water, to use adult supervision and not to use alcohol."

Under state law, most people can't set off any fireworks except sparklers. But the law allows fireworks vendors to sell them to people for a few specific jobs, such as mining, working in a fish hatchery or scaring away birds on a farm. Violating the law carries a penalty of up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine, but enforcement is rare.

Many vendors ask customers to sign a waiver saying they'll use the fireworks legitimately. Police and fire marshals complain about the law and say it's too hard to enforce.

Welch has had enough.

"These are dangerous explosive devices, and there's the blatant loophole in the law," he said. "Everybody is winking and nodding and turning the other way, and the majority of our good citizens want to live in peace and not have to endure this every Fourth of July."

Last year, the state fire marshal's office received reports of 216 calls and two injuries for "explosive incendiary devices," a number that spokeswoman Nina Bottcher said is probably a fraction of the total.

In Clearwater this year, a 12-year-old boy was struck in the eye by what police think was a firework. In Tampa, two men were hospitalized after their homemade fireworks _ acetylene gas inside balloons _ exploded inside a car.

"I'm as patriotic as the next guy," Welch said. But for him, it's too much.

"In my neighborhood it starts three or four days before the Fourth of July. At 10, 11, 12 o'clock at night, the fireworks are going off," he said. "It's way beyond the sparklers we had when I was a kid."