balloon ban

Doris Pedersen and Laura Hacket of Liberty Wildlife explain why balloons are dangerous to birds and other creatures.  

The battle lines were drawn between Gilbert lawmaker Warren Petersen – and the Girl Scouts.

The way Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein sees it, it’s against the law to throw things out the window of your car and pollute the environment. So now she wants to extend it to what people release into the air.

Her HB 2339 would make it illegal to release balloons into the atmosphere “for any reason,’’ including any promotional activity or product advertisement.

Petersen, the House Majority Leader, called the proposal “government gone wild.’’

“I will certainly oppose any legislation penalizing children for releasing balloons into the air,’’ he said.

The bill revives a dust-up between Petersen and the girls steming from April of last year when the girls were in third-grade and were in a Brownie troop.

Back then, the 15-girl Ahwatukee troop and Scoutmaster Heather Sapp had worked for months on a project involving balloons’ harmful impact on wildlife when birds and animals eat their remnants.

With Epstein’s help, the girls submitted a bill to curb their release – an exercise - as much a civics lesson aimed at teaching them how laws are made as it was their effort to save a piece of the environment.

The bill died without a hearing – as many bills do.

But out of nowhere on April 12, Petersen issued a blistering news release criticizing the long-dead measure.

The release said he “applauded House Republicans for killing” it.

“If enacted, HB 2664 would have prohibited the releasing of balloons into the air, as well as mandating expensive warning label requirements for manufacturers to affix to balloons prior to sale,” the release began.

It then quoted Petersen as saying:

“With committee work over, it’s all but certain this radical ‘balloon bill’ will not advance. I’m proud my Republican colleagues killed a bill with such expansive overreach into people’s lives. Not even 5-year-olds at a birthday party would be safe from such an extreme bill, which would carry a penalty up to $500. This model legislation put forth by my Democratic colleagues is a model of what shouldn’t be introduced in the Arizona Legislature.”

Petersen’s colleague – Glendale Republican Anthony Kern – gleefully tweeted the release.

At the time, Epstein, whose district includes Ahwatukee, said she was acting on behalf of her constituents – namely, the 8- and 9-year-old girls who had been working on the project.

Epstein and the girls noted five states, six cities and two other countries ban balloon releases because of the damage they wreak on the planet.

Dolphins, whales, turtles and many other marine species, as well as animals and birds have been hurt or killed by balloons, which can block their digestive tract as they slowly starve to death. Birds and smaller animals can also become entangled in balloons and their ribbons, left virtually immobile until they die.

Balloons also have been known to spark electrical fires and power outages when they get tangled up in power transformers. Salt River Project estimates its service areas see 80 outages a year caused by Mylar balloons set free.

“It’s not just SRP’s area that is affected; all utility providers, including municipal utilities, face the same problem,” the Arizona League of Cities has stated. “The City of Mesa Energy Resources faces similar Mylar balloon issues especially around graduation season.”

The damage is extensive enough to have prompted college football champion Clemson University two years ago to end a 35-year tradition of releasing balloons en masse at the beginning of each home football game.

Last week, Epstein reintroduce the bill – minus a financial punishment for offenders – with a little more fanfare than the quiet introduction surrounding its introduction last year. 

She held a press conference, bringing with her some of the Girl Scouts as well as experts on the subject.

She cited statistics showing about 29 percent of the birds in the United States and Canada – about three billion in all – have disappeared in the last half-century.

“It is more than just balloons,’’ Epstein said, adding balloons are “the most lethal kind of pollution for birds and for every other kind of wildlife out there.’’

This was backed up by Doris Pedersen of Liberty Wildlife, which is involved in not only conservation and education but also helping injured animals.

“The wildlife actually eat them,’’ she said of balloon residue. “It gets in their system and blocks their system.’’

And Pedersen said waterfowl mistake what’s left of those shiny Mylar balloons for jellyfish.

The idea is not original to Epstein.

Epstein also pointed out the legislation specifically does not apply to the accidental release of five or fewer balloons and the only penalty would be community service – picking up litter.

Still, she said, this isn’t so much about enforcement as publicizing the danger of balloons.

“It’s a reminder to everybody litter really does harm wildlife,’’ Epstein said. 

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.