The National Park Service will be accepting comments about shooting fireworks over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial until March 30, 2020. The opportunity exists while an Environmental Assessment (EA) that was prepared to evaluate the effects of the fireworks is in the public comment period.
After March 30 the NPS will make a decision about whether to proceed with the fireworks over the faces of four Presidents.
I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other parks during the first four years that fireworks were used on Independence Day at the Memorial, therefore I have some background knowledge about the issue. There are three reasons why I am against shooting fireworks in the Memorial.
Fireworks were used at Mount Rushmore on July 3 or 4 from 1998 to 2009 except in 2002 when it was canceled due to the danger of the pyrotechnic display starting wildfires. During those 11 events 20 documented wildfires were ignited by the fireworks during the middle of the fire season. They were all suppressed by the 60 to 80 firefighters staged around the sculpture before they could grow large. The park is not just the stone carving; it has over 1,000 acres of timber within the boundary, and beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.
Concerning the threat of adding to the 20 wildfires started in previous fireworks displays, the EA states that in a dry year a wildfire “would be more likely to result in a high-consequence fire burning outside the boundaries of the Memorial and toward the town of Keystone, South Dakota, up the northeast aspect of Black Elk Peak, or into the basin near Horsethief Lake.”
Professional photographer Paul Horsted attended one of the public meetings earlier this month that were conducted to collect comments from the public about the fireworks. He took photos of some of the exhibits prepared by the National Park Service. One of them is a map showing the locations of six fires that were ignited in 2007. You can see the rest of Paul’s photos of the meeting and the exhibits HERE.
2. Carcinogens in the water
In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate, a carcinogen which is a component of rocket fuels, fireworks, and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over the 12-year period during which they were used.
The EA has several paragraphs devoted to the perchlorate and states the concentrations in the water inside the Memorial are “orders of magnitude higher” than reference samples outside the Memorial. But that is an understatement at best. Order of magnitude may sound vague, but it usually means ten times higher. Unmentioned in the EA is the fact that data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter measured in a stream sample between 2011 and 2015 was about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial, which were 0.2 micrograms per liter. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.
According to the EA the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to raise the health advisory for perchlorate from 15 to 56 micrograms per liter. Maybe it is just a coincidence that it would put the contaminated water at Mount Rushmore suddenly within acceptable guidelines. But a process like this is consistent with other environmental policy changes by the federal government in recent years.
Another issue with exploding pyrotechnics over the Memorial is the trash that can never be completely picked up. Left on the sculpture and in the forest are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.