Booms and plumes

Why some worry about Thunder over Louisville’s potential harm to the Ohio River

Nothing caps an afternoon of warplane swagger like aggressive sparkles bursting into the night. The always patriotic, never bashful Thunder over Louisville boasts 60 tons of pyrotechnics, earning it the status of one of North America’s largest annual fireworks shows.

This year, just like in the past, gunpowder’s family-friendly delegates rocketed from several barges in the Ohio River and cascaded off the Second Street Bridge in a half-mile long “waterfall.”

The buzz kill to each dazzling explosion lies in the recipe. Fireworks’ dramatic colors and percussion require toxic heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and perchlorate, a chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken great interest in since the mid-2000s. Research shows the chemical, when ingested, can damage the thyroid gland, which is essential in mental development and metabolism, particularly in fetuses. Last year, the EPA decided perchlorate warranted regulation. (The EPA’s federal standard for perchlorate in drinking water has yet to be determined. Some states have opted to regulate it on their own; Kentucky has not.)

A few years ago, Jason Flickner, a Southern Indiana environmental consultant and advocate, watched Thunder in person. It bothered him. The Ohio River — from Pittsburgh to Louisville and beyond — hosts fireworks shows several times a year, and he wondered about the impact.

Of course there’s the smoke, which this year traveled southwest from the Thunder staging area. An air monitor in Wyandotte Park spiked around show time, with particulate matter increasing from barely a trace to almost 100 parts per billion, a very unhealthy level. (An air quality alert was not issued because the plume did not stick around for long.)

Last year, Flickner wrote a letter to organizers and sponsors highlighting his concerns about water quality. He did not request cancellation. Instead, he pointed out that under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, pollution discharge into waterways requires a special permit. Since both exploded and unspent fireworks result in chemical releases as well as debris, Flickner argued a permit was needed.

Since that time, the San Diego Water Quality Control Board became the first in the country to adopt strict permitting, monitoring and cleanup guidelines for fireworks shows that take place over California’s coast.

The Kentucky Derby Festival tells LEO every federal, state and city permit required for the massive event is secured.

Yet, before an environmental permit would be mandated, contamination would have to be detected. No one knows if chemicals linger in the river post-Thunder because no one is monitoring. That, more than anything, is what frustrates Flickner.

“I don’t think the issue is being taken seriously by state government or the corporations that are funding these fireworks displays,” Flickner says.

Clarence Hixson, a Louisville attorney with an interest in environmental issues, echoes Flickner’s belief that fireworks displays pollute and therefore are subject to the Clean Water Act. But he doubts anyone will ever press the matter into a courtroom.

“Because Thunder over Louisville is the front door to the Derby weekend,” he says. “It draws a huge crowd.”

And it has a hefty $56 million economic impact on the city, according to festival organizers.

Still, basic physics tells us what goes up must come down. A 2007 EPA study of waterways after a fireworks show tells even more.

The study sampled water in an Oklahoma lake the day after four different fireworks shows, testing specifically for perchlorate concentrations. Richard Wilkin, an EPA geochemist, says levels increased significantly, up to 1,000 times the pre-fireworks level. Within a few weeks, the contaminants disappeared — the warmer the water, the quicker the dilution.

“These are big jumps,” Wilkin tells LEO from his office in Oklahoma.

Occasionally levels did exceed standards deemed safe for drinking. (It’s worth noting that drinking water intakes for Louisville are upstream from Thunder, and therefore the Louisville Water Co. doesn’t feel it poses any threat.)

A 2011 report out of New York detailed similar findings in a pond used for fireworks shows. Wilkin points out that both studies involve infinitely smaller, far more stagnant bodies of water than the Ohio River. Pollution plumes would most likely dilute more quickly in the river.

But no studies have conclusively shown this. It’s why the 2007 report recommends more research, particularly in urban areas.

“In large bodies of water, there just hasn’t been work there,” Wilkin says, adding that relatives of his in Louisville have asked him whether the EPA will ever test perchlorate here post-Thunder.

Judy Peterson, executive director with the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, welcomes more research on the topic, especially since even brief exposure to some contaminants can have a negative impact on aquatic life.

“I know cities must balance a number of factors, including safety in scheduling fireworks displays,” Peterson writes in an email to LEO. “But I hope we do factor in protecting our rivers as well, and consider some scientific studies to figure out if there is reason to be concerned …”

No endangered species live in the direct vicinity of Thunder, though several endangered mussel species live along the Ohio River.

Leroy Koch with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says any harm to mussels would largely depend on potency and duration of chemical plumes as well as how fully developed the mussels are. Juveniles might not fare as well.

“(It’s) all unknowns,” Koch says. “I can’t really say mussels are not being impacted, can’t say that they are.”

In the big picture, fireworks hardly pose the region’s most egregious environmental threat. Flickner realizes the EPA and other agencies must focus on more pressing water quality issues, but says, “Fireworks are a discernable source of pollution.”

And given that the Ohio River ranks as one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, he believes more research is necessary to uncover potential harm.