Disneylands Downwinders

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."

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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.


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."

Cal State Fullerton environmental chemist Harold Rogers says he's more concerned about what happens when airborne chemicals fall to earth. "I'm not worried about air quality," he says. "All those things that are formed up there are heavier than air." He rattles off a list of ingredients common in fireworks—sulfur, iron, boron, copper, zinc, magnesium and barium—and notes, "They're all toxic. And they're in these clouds of smoke, and that stuff does settle into the ground. It doesn't stay in the air; it doesn't disperse infinitely. It settles. You can't expect something to become nothing by magic; it has to be accounted for. It's called material balance."

In achieving material balance, it's a simple matter for these toxic chemicals to "leach into the water table," Rogers says. All it takes is water—in the form of rain or from a garden hose, for example.

Rogers would not speculate on what seven straight months of fireworks fallout has done to the residents, the soil in their neighborhood or the area's ground water. "Toxicity is a matter of exposure," he notes. "It's one thing to know what the permissible exposure limits are; it's another to know whether the toxins are accumulating in the soil and/or water table at that level. I do not know." It could take years or even decades before a body starts to show symptoms of any toxic buildup, he says. "A lot of these [chemicals] are nasty inasmuch as they bioaccumulate. They could be at a very low level in the soil at any given time, but if you are exposed to it over a long period of time and it gets into the body, it stores in fatty tissues."

Rogers says there's only one way to find out whether carcinogens are building up in the body: very expensive blood tests that many of the residents in this low-income area likely cannot afford.

In an irony of monumental scale, the most outspoken critics of Disneyland fireworks are in a communist country. At Disneyland Hong Kong, scheduled to open in 2005, the proposed fireworks show has run into opposition from local environmental groups. According to an April 7 South China Morning Post article, activists argue that Disney's various calculations on air quality and pollution emissions in their environmental-impact assessment are ambiguous. They fear that the fireworks may pollute the nearby bay.


Many residents on Citron Street and other areas close to Disneyland have complained about air quality and the effect of soot on their vehicles, swimming pools and homes. But they say their complaints lead nowhere. A spokesperson for the EPA explains that the agency does not have any information on fireworks used in the park and that the only source of such information would be Disneyland or the manufacturer. Nor would the EPA handle complaints about Disneyland fireworks, the spokesperson says; those ought to be directed to the local South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).

Which is where Anaheim activist Jim Anderson says he has sent "more than 100" complaints over the past couple of years. But Anderson says AQMD officials refused to consider the complaints because they were sent as form letters. "They told me form letters were not counted," Anderson says. Officials at AQMD say that is indeed the agency's policy and add they have received only three complaints dealing with the fireworks this year. That's not enough to warrant an investigation, they say, citing an AQMD policy that calls for investigations only when a problem affects a "considerable number of persons." Asked how the agency defines "considerable," an AQMD spokesperson says there is no exact number.

A spokesperson for Cal/OSHA, the state agency that oversees the health of workers who deal with dangerous chemicals, says that agency is not responsible for handling complaints from the public or divulging risk information to the general public.

And don't bother calling the Anaheim Police Department, which responded as if we were calling the Anaheim Visitors Bureau. How do they handle residents who complain about Disneyland's fireworks? "We ask them to deal with Disneyland directly," says spokesman Sergeant Rick Martinez. Martinez adds that complaints are uncommon and notes that millions of people come to Anaheim from across the world to watch the fireworks; he says his department has to take those people into consideration. For the one or two complaints the department may get from local residents, Martinez says, there are tens of thousands of tourists enjoying the show every night.


Pyro Spectaculars Inc., the Rialto company that manufactures fireworks for Disneyland, refused to allow the Weekly access to the list of ingredients. Officials at the park itself would not comment on the possible health hazards of their fireworks, how they deal with complaints or even the number of complaints they have received. The company refused a request to view a list of fireworks components.

According to several former Disneyland employees, the theme park does, however, take several precautions to protect the health and safety of park visitors and employees. During the fireworks show, former employees told the Weekly, park security closes Toontown, the park area closest to the spot from which fireworks are launched; after the show, employees use special vacuums to suck up ash and other debris before guests are allowed back in. They also said access to the park's northern employee-parking structure is restricted during the half-hour show and said security posts signs warning of possible damage to vehicles exposed to the open air during the show.

For Pinkerton, the environmental technician, it's not Disneyland employees or visitors who are most vulnerable, but rather residents in the surrounding neighborhood. "They're getting more of the contaminants," he says.


Activist Anderson bought his Anaheim tract house in 1969 for $19,000. Since that time, he says, his home has been his hobby; he has invested a lot of himself in building additional rooms over the years.

In 1969, Anderson couldn't have predicted that Disney's expansion would be so intrusive. "The things that I didn't think about are the ones that are most important now," he says. But the retiree finds leaving the city, with all of its faults, inconceivable. "Some people like venturing into a new place," he says. "I never did."

Anderson is grateful that he lives a few blocks beyond Citron Street. When he visits friends in that neighborhood and the fireworks show begins, "it's like their roof is coming off."

"It's terrible—like a war," he says.

Sue Schneider believes that the excessive noise and the construction of the Disneyland expansion have depressed the value of her home. She would love to buy a home in Tustin Hills but can't swing the cash for what she figures would be a comparable home. "I can't afford the house I would like to buy," she says simply. "A home worth $350,000 to $400,000 in another area would be worth less in my neighborhood."

For Alejandro Robles, living in the epicenter of the smoke and ash, it's just another day on Citron Street. Leaning on a metal security fence at 9:30 p.m., he is among the few who stay outside during the nightly shows. "When someone has lived here for a while, they have to adapt to what is normal," he says. "After living here for three years, the fireworks have become normal to us."

And without even a hint of sarcasm, he explains, "On one side, it's really cool because the kids like to see the show. But on the other side, day after day of this smoke has to be harmful to some people."

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