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It's a scorching Wednesday night in early September. Hundreds of tourists stroll alongside freshly paved Harbor Boulevard. Around 9:30 p.m., minivans and SUVs converge in local businesses' parking lots.
The crowds have gathered to see Disneyland's fireworks display, showing nightly through spring and summer, and now each weekend the rest of the year.
Grant Gustavson's station wagon pulls into the Acapulco restaurant's parking lot next to the theme park. A former pyrotechnic technician, Gustavson says he has driven from his home in Long Beach for years to enjoy the fireworks. These days, he brings his toddler, who impatiently asks, "When are we going to see the fireworks?" "Soon," Gustavson reassures him.
"This is a very special event for him because he's really got to be on his good behavior," Gustavson says. "This is a big reward."
Minutes later, the night sky erupts in a radiant spectrum of blues and greens. Red flares rocket into the air in wide arcs, explode, and vanish into the darkness. Yellows and whites illuminate the red brick walkway where tourists stand beneath a luxurious canopy of 20-foot-tall palm trees that extends to Katella Avenue.
When the spectacle ends, the delighted revelers drift away, some to posh hotels, others to a late dinner. Like a caravan, the minivans and SUVs disappear into the night.
But to Alejandro Robles, who lives just north of the Happiest Place on Earth, the show is just beginning.
'LIKE A WAR ZONE EVERY NIGHT'
The bright lights that shine on Disneyland and nearby businesses don't penetrate Robles' darkened neighborhood. Nor is there any sign of the $546 million that Anaheim officials spent on Disneyland-related improvements elsewhere in the city. Though he's just two blocks from Harbor Boulevard, no rows of landscaped palm trees and gardens line his neighborhood on Citron Street.
Citron Street is a side of Disneyland tourists see only by accident. It's a chain of identical apartment buildings behind small, struggling lawns and serious-looking security gates. Sidewalks are overgrown by weeds. Kids ride scooters and skateboards over cracked and potholed asphalt.
And when the fireworks erupt at night, the wind can turn a clear sky into a smoggy haze. Then a column of smoke 10 stories high and half a mile wide moves slowly through Robles' neighborhood. About this time every night, his wife and children are forced indoors because they have a hard time breathing outside. Every night for the past 200 days, the stench of eye-irritating, sulfur-laden black smoke has made living downwind of Disneyland unbearable.
"The kids are entertained by the fireworks, but sometimes the smoke gets bad. When it's windy, the smoke passes by quickly—but when it isn't, the area gets really smoggy and smoky," says Robles, a three-year resident of Citron Street. "My wife has asthma and I have two kids that have asthma, and when the fireworks go off, it really affects them, and they have to go inside the house."
When the fireworks go off, the neighborhood turns into something like a scene from World War II. Ear-shattering explosions boom through streets less than a mile from the park. Car alarms whistle, dogs yelp and babies cry.
Sue Schneider doesn't mind the fireworks so much, now that her daughter is old enough to enjoy them. But when her child was younger, the explosions would awaken her screaming every night. Schneider says, "It sounded like bombs going off—like a war zone every night."
On a typical night, people on Citron Street run for cover as ashes from the fireworks drift down onto their cars and homes. But 14-year-old Eduardo Guillen stands in the rain of soot with a group of his friends. He says he hasn't gotten used to it, though he has lived here since he was 8. "It sucks every time," he says. "The smoke is the worst part."
He points to the thin layer of ash that covers his father's truck. His dad is always upset at the fallout, he says, and attributes the truck's damaged paint to Disneyland pyrotechnics.
Many residents say they don't know whether the smoke is bad for them. But environmental-safety technician Bobby Pinkerton says there is legitimate reason to worry.
Pinkerton works for Compliance Solutions in Long Beach, a firm he says has trained thousands of employees from other companies to meet environmental and safety standards set by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other regulatory government agencies.
"Now that Disneyland has made the shows bigger, they're putting more pollutants into the air—more toxins," Pinkerton asserts.
Pinkerton says the main ingredient in fireworks is sulfur, and that presents the biggest health risk. "It scars your lungs, causes small skin irritations, and may lead to respiratory problems," he says. "On a nice night, you have a good breeze blowing and sulfur blows everywhere."
He believes the nightly sulfur showers may make the Robles family's asthma problems worse. "If it gets into your lungs," he says, "then you'll have respiratory problems."
Pinkerton adds that residents are also right to suspect that sulfur is behind another common complaint—the rapid oxidizing of the paint on their cars. "All [the sulfur] has to do is get airborne and get a little water into it," he says. "You could have any kind of moisture or rain in the air, and then sulfur reacts with it and it turns into a rusting process. It eats away at the coating and paint of the cars—and that's just sulfur alone."