SCARBOROUGH — Public works employees removed two truckloads of fireworks debris from Pine Point Beach early Thursday morning in the wake of the July Fourth holiday.

Spent fireworks canisters, busted beach chairs, plastic bits and other remnants of untold good times had been strewn across one of southern Maine’s most popular beaches. It was a surprising amount of trash considering that fireworks are prohibited on the town’s beaches.

Town officials say it’s a perennial enforcement problem that apparently got out of hand this year. Some residents say it’s a community and environmental hazard that must be addressed, especially because it impacts the region’s federally protected piping plover population, as well as other shorebirds and wildlife that might ingest the plastic.

Karen D’Andrea, a Pine Point resident and former town councilor, witnessed one worker’s efforts when she was walking her dog around 6 a.m. Thursday. Dominating the growing pile at the edge of the beach were dozens of empty boxes featuring colorful images of fireworks with names such as Guns of Navarone and Phantom Strike.

“I was shocked,” D’Andrea said. “It was like all hell had broken loose around here. There was tons of debris everywhere. It ended up in the water and everywhere and a lot of it just didn’t get picked up.”

D’Andrea used her cellphone to take photos of the 5-foot-tall rubbish piles and posted them on Facebook, drawing more than 100 reactions, 72 comments and 67 shares. She and others railed against the overwhelming disregard for the federal, state and local laws and natural resources, including delicate piping plover habitat.

“Here’s what having fireworks allowed in your town really means,” D’Andrea wrote. “These were all from the beach – WHERE PIPING PLOVERS ARE NESTING. Apparently this is allowed regardless of protections for this bird. … Wonder where the plastics flooding the ocean are coming from? Here’s only one source.”

Kathleen Kelly, a fellow Scarborough resident, responded: “Holy Cow! People left all that crap on the beach instead of carrying it out with them when they left? What pigs!”

Kenneth Fengler, another town resident, wrote: “I’m for banning them again. No benefits in my opinion. As others said, it’s about money. Leave the displays in the hands of professionals.”

D’Andrea said she has reached out to town officials, calling for action to prevent similar flouting of laws and community values in the future. She said it’s apparent that improved enforcement and public education is necessary, such as posting the fireworks ban at town beaches in the days leading up to Independence Day.

“How do you ignore a problem that’s so obviously illegal?” D’Andrea asked.

FIREWORKS USE LEGALIZED

The Legislature legalized the sale and use of so-called consumer fireworks in 2011. The following year, many towns banned both their sale and use, including neighboring South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Old Orchard Beach.

The Scarborough Town Council allowed fireworks stores, to be regulated under the fire code, and fireworks displays on several days around July Fourth and Jan. 1. D’Andrea tried to fight the ordinance but ultimately went along with a unanimous decision because it included significant limits.

Of two fireworks stores that opened in 2012, one is still operating: Phantom Fireworks, a chain with stores in several states, which is located in the Cabela’s shopping plaza on Payne Road, near the Scarborough exit of the Maine Turnpike.

It’s illegal to light fireworks on Scarborough beaches, where protected piping plovers are sometimes nesting, but that doesn’t stop scofflaws every year. It’s a perennial enforcement problem on the town’s beaches and this year was especially bad at Pine Point, officials said. Photo courtesy of Karen D'Andrea

Many of the spent fireworks found at Pine Point Beach came from Phantom Fireworks. On a recent visit, store employees provided a handout given to customers that reflects state and local fireworks laws and safety guidelines.

Town Manager Tom Hall said three public works employees cleared the beach of large debris Thursday, and it was raked by machine the next day, as it is every Tuesday and Friday.

Hall said summer fireworks also have been a problem at the more remote Ferry, Western and Higgins beaches, but the situation is more acute at Pine Point. It’s an attractive spot to set off fireworks, especially for people who may not live in the area, because of its proximity to Old Orchard Beach and public access to more than 500 parking spaces.

“Fireworks have never been allowed on town beaches, but it’s always been a problem,” Hall said. “It probably comes down to enforcement. We do have additional summer reserve officers on, but we’re talking about miles of beach here.”

Hall acknowledged that state and federal wildlife officials in recent years have challenged the town to take better care of piping plovers, a federally protected shorebird that nests on 25 Maine beaches, from Ogunquit to Georgetown. The town passed a tougher leash law after an unleashed dog killed a plover chick on Pine Point Beach in July 2013.

Hall noted that the council amended the consumer fireworks ordinance last year to further restrict legal displays to July 3 and 4 and Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. The council also required users to get a fireworks permit from the fire department and required retailers to provide written notice to buyers that a permit is needed.

Although the ordinance doesn’t state where fireworks may be set off, the written application stipulates that users must have permission to light fireworks on property other than their own and hold liability insurance for bodily injury or property damage that might be caused by the display.

The updated ordinance includes guidelines advising fireworks users to “not disturb our neighbors’ comfort” and not allow fireworks debris to “fall on your neighbors’ property or any environmentally sensitive areas, (such as) beaches, marshes or wetlands.”

The guidelines also tell fireworks users to warn neighbors in advance of a display, to not use them near animals or livestock that might become frightened, and to make sure anyone using fireworks is at least 21 years old.

PROTECTED PLOVER HABITAT

Hall said it’s apparent that many people aren’t following the fireworks ordinance and guidelines or getting a permit.

The fire department’s web pages provide a form to apply for a permit online, but the ordinance and guidelines weren’t readily visible.

So far this season, 66 nesting plover pairs have hatched a total of 76 chicks and 57 fledglings on beaches from Ogunquit to Georgetown, said Laura Minich Zitske, director of Maine Audubon’s coastal birds project.

Because fireworks can disturb and sometimes kill plovers, Audubon staff members and community volunteers “babysat” the nesting pairs throughout the day and night of July Fourth, Zitske said.

It’s a precaution that’s been taken since 2011, when a barrage of fireworks on Hills Beach in Biddeford frightened away a pair of nesting adults. Skittish creatures, their three hatchlings died when the adults never returned.

There are no nesting plovers on Pine Point Beach this year, Zitske said. But there are three pairs on nearby Old Orchard Beach, and there’s nothing to prevent plovers from moving to other areas.

Elsewhere in Scarborough, there are seven pairs just across the Nonesuch River on Ferry and Western beaches, four pairs on Higgins Beach and two pairs at Scarborough State Park.

“But it’s not just about plovers,” Zitske said. “All wildlife is vulnerable to being disturbed and potentially harmed by fireworks.”

Professional, scheduled fireworks displays, like those held this year at Old Orchard and Ogunquit beaches, can be done in a way that keeps plovers safe, Zitske said.

DISREGARD FOR OTHERS, OCEAN

Consumer fireworks, on the other hand, are troublesome because users often set them off randomly, without warning, and often without common sense or concern for others.

The damage is worse if they fail to clean up after themselves, letting harmful plastic waste wash into the ocean, where seabirds and other creatures are dying with their bellies full of plastic.

“The thing is, after a few drinks on a holiday, people often aren’t in a frame of mind where they should be setting off fireworks, let alone being concerned about disturbing a protected species down the beach,” Zitske said.

She said in her experience, the communities that have the greatest success in keeping fireworks off beaches are those that educate the public and clearly post the regulations.

Hall said Scarborough officials will consider various steps to prevent fireworks from being used on town beaches in the future.

“It’s disappointing that people aren’t better neighbors, citizens and stewards of our natural resources,” he said.

 

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