"It's getting stupid. Do they really think a terrorist will use a firecracker to blow up a building?" said Don Lantis, of North Sioux City, S.D., whose family-owned pyrotechnics company puts on 300 to 400 shows around the country every Independence Day.
Because of uncertainty over how to comply with the government's anti-terror laws, railways have refused to handle fireworks since early this year, cutting off the main method of transport for shipments arriving at West Coast ports from China and other Asian countries. On May 5, the government issued regulations on fireworks transport by air, water and truck but has yet to decide on new guidelines for trains.
On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., wrote the secretaries of Justice, Transportation and Homeland Security, urging them to quickly come up with interim rules to comply with last year's passage of the Safe Explosives Act.
"The lack of action on rail transport threatens to prevent the delivery of fireworks for the Fourth of July in many areas of the country," he said.
"We are working diligently to get a rail explosives notice," said Blain Rethmeier, a spokesman for the Justice Department. He said the effort was still in the draft stage awaiting agreement by the involved agencies.
Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said the biggest worry is that companies putting on fireworks shows, while able to satisfy their larger customers, will lack the supplies to carry out performances in smaller communities.
"It's been crippling for the fireworks industry," she said. "The concern is that we are way behind in getting products" because of backlogs at the ports.
She said her association, which represents some 260 pyrotechnics companies, has found only two truck lines willing to carry their products because of the increased security and insurance costs. Trains actually are the safest and most secure way of moving fireworks, she said.
The industry is close-knit, she said, and better-situated companies will help their competitors with supply shortages.
But "it's now or never," she said of the need for new rail transport rules before Independence Day. "We are most renowned for lighting up the skies to show the country's greatness. We aren't associated with terrorism."
Lantis, whose Lantis Fireworks company has been in business since 1945, said it will cost his firm an extra $4,000, more than double current rates, to move a shipment of fireworks from the West Coast by truck rather than train.
He said his company of about 40 employees will have to pay $5 million this year in insurance, and that under new rules everybody in the industry will have to undergo background checks. In the past, he said, the company's Salt Lake City branch hired "shooters" from Australia because of their skills, but prohibitions on foreigners will make that impossible this year.
"It's foolish," he said. "Fireworks don't do anything, they make colors."