Social media furor leads to flurry of inspections, scrutiny at York County fireworks warehouse

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

The fuse was lit in February.

An email reportedly raised a public safety concern about a warehouse storing fireworks in a corner of North York. The alarm sparked an investigation that branched across various regulatory and law enforcement agencies.

Complaints were reported. The borough issued a cease-and-desist order. Controversy flared on Facebook — where at least one post feared explosives could devastate three square miles around the warehouse.

And then, as the furor reached a crescendo on social media, the situation seemed to abruptly fizzle out.

“There’s no problem here, folks. There’s no problem,” Borough Manager David Bolton told the North York Borough Council during the May 9 meeting — the same meeting where Inch & Co. discussed a tax abatement program for its planned new sports complex.

801 North Duke Street in North York Borough, Thursday, May 11, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Bolton said the structure, at 801 N. Duke St., housed consumer-grade fireworks. They were flammable, he added, but they presented no risk of widespread catastrophe.

“You’re not going to blow up. You are not in danger,” Bolton said. “You’re in no more danger of that building than you are of a cardboard factory catching fire. Yes, it will burn, but it will not explode.”

Borough leaders have not stated how many fireworks are stored at the facility. They also haven't said who sounded the initial warning.

But the situation certainly drew a lot of outside scrutiny.

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Both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were shown to have conducted inspections. The borough also consulted a pyrotechnics expert.

The complaint that prompted the DEP inspection alleged a potential explosion blast radius of four to five square miles, an agency document shows.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also looking into a complaint filed in March, according to a spokesperson, who noted that the process of “looking into” a complaint isn't necessarily the same as a formal investigation. The specific parameters of that inquiry remain unclear.

Members of the North York borough council attend their meeting May 9, 2023.

Nobody had anything further to say on the issue during the most recent North York meeting.

Glen Rock-based Americasia Inc., headed by Dennis Coster, was identified as the company leasing space to store fireworks at the warehouse, which sits on a nearly 2-acre property next to North York Borough Park.

Americasia is associated with the Fireworks Fantasy-Bada Boom stores in Glen Rock and Peach Bottom Township, according to state business records.

Coster did not respond to requests for comment, including in-person visits to addresses affiliated with his business.

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North York’s zoning officer, Tom Arnold, asked Bolton back in October 2022 whether the facility could be used to house fireworks, according to a letter Bolton read to the council May 9.

Adults have been allowed to buy consumer-grade fireworks with up to 50 milligrams of explosive materials in Pennsylvania since a change in the state law in 2017. Last summer, a new state law took effect that put more restrictions on fireworks use.

Bolton said he checked into borough and state rules and found no problems with storing consumer fireworks at the warehouse.

The situation apparently lay dormant for four months until council members visited the facility Feb. 10.

Bolton told The York Dispatch that borough officials and council members were invited on a tour while a potential buyer looked to purchase the property.

801 North Duke Street in North York Borough, Thursday, May 11, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

He said the buyer wanted to offer the warehouse to the borough for public works, but it didn’t meet the municipal government’s needs.

The next day, a council member sent an email warning of a “dangerous and serious public safety issue,” his letter showed.

That set off an investigation in which seven local, state and federal agencies were contacted. The Pennsylvania State Police, the state fire marshal, the Environmental Protection Agency, the ATF and the state agriculture department were contacted by York City Fire Chief William Sleeger. The York County District Attorney’s Office and Northern York County Regional Police were contacted by borough staff, Bolton’s letter shows.

Sleeger, whose department provides firefighting services to North York, told Bolton in an email that Americasia’s operation at the warehouse should “cease immediately and the product be removed,” Bolton’s letter shows.

The borough then issued a cease-and-desist order to Americasia.

The full-court press of the borough’s investigation was aimed in part at mitigating potential liability and confronting alleged rumors, according to Bolton in an email to The York Dispatch.

Bolton accused a council member, whom he didn’t name, of spreading false information and fanning public fears.

“In exploring all agencies, we hoped to pacify the outspoken minority on social media that was creating an atmosphere of panic for their own personal reasons,” he said.

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Sleeger told the Dispatch that he contacted the various agencies to seek guidance on the situation, saying it was far outside routine.

“I did the due diligence that we needed to do that way and contacted the proper agencies,” he said.

He also noted Americasia lacked permits at the warehouse.

“At that time, he wasn’t licensed or regulated,” Sleeger said, referring to Coster.

The state agriculture department provides licenses for retailers to sell consumer-grade fireworks under the new law.

Shannon Powers, a department spokesperson, clarified that the warehouse doesn’t require a license because it’s used for storage.

“If it’s a warehouse that doesn’t sell retail from that location, it wouldn’t have a license from the department,” she said. “We regulate permanent locations that sell consumer-grade fireworks.”

A state map of fireworks retailers includes Fireworks Fantasy near Glen Rock, indicating the Americasia affiliate is licensed there.

Bolton and Sleeger didn’t go into specifics about the volume of fireworks stored at the warehouse or which kinds were present there. Sleeger stated a concern that airing such details could raise break-in and burglary risks.

Bolton said the borough didn’t conduct an inventory, only checked whether the fireworks were consumer-grade for compliance.

“There are no limits on the amount of consumer-grade units currently in the law,” he said. “We do check during inspections what type is stored and that it is safely under the suppression systems in case of an event.”

Bolton said most of the agencies the borough contacted didn’t conduct formal investigations, as the situation didn’t raise any flags.

The state DEP did investigate a complaint that was made April 26.

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Inspectors visited the warehouse during an unannounced arrival on May 1 — the visit followed an ATF inspection — and found “no illegal explosives on the property,” according to a DEP document provided by Bolton.

The agency didn’t cite any violations.

A spokesperson for the ATF said Tuesday the agency concluded that the issue of fireworks storage did not fall under its purview.

After consulting regulators and law enforcement, according to his letter, Bolton told the council the cease-and-desist order was good to be lifted that day as long as Arnold signed off on zoning and code compliances.

Bolton’s letter also called for Americasia to install a Knox Box at the facility — a wall-mounted safe with keys for emergency responders to use to enter a building — and to be open to any request for an inspection with a 48-hour notice.

— Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify that the state law allowing the purchase of consumer-grade fireworks went into effect in 2017, and changes to that law were made last summer.