Ahwatukee Girl Scouts

Ahwatukee Girl Scouts accompanied state Rep. Mitzi Epstein at a press conference at the State Capitol to applaud her reintroduction of a bill that would ban the release of balloons into the air - which the Scouts contend is nothing more than littering.

They’re back – and they’re not taking no for an answer.

Rudely rebuffed by the State House Republican leadership last spring, a group of Ahwatukee Girl Scouts isn’t giving up on their fight for a state ban on releasing balloons – which they say is no different from banning people from tossing litter onto highways.

And this time, Troop Girl Scout 3835 not only has attracted other troops to join the fight, but the girls also have attracted support from environmental groups and amassed data to support their cause.

Troop 3835 Girl Scout Amber Chen started the campaign last year after discovering how remnants of balloons are eaten by wildlife, particularly birds, killing or injuring them. Troop 3835 comprises fourth graders from Monte Vista Elementary.

Amber and the other Troop 3835 girls – supported Ahwatukee Cadette Troop 757 and Brownie Troop 3885 – gathered at the State Capitol for a press conference last week with LD 18 Rep. Mitzi Epstein.

Epstein introduced again the bill that House Majority Leader Warren Petersen last year went out of his way to deride  even though the bill was already dead.

The only difference between the new HB2339 and last year’s bill is that Epstein eliminated a monetary penalty for releasing balloons in the air, replacing that with a community service component, like picking up litter.

The way the Girl Scouts and Epstein see it, the law already forbids people from tossing litter out the car window. This bill simply extends that 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 called the bill “government gone wild.’’

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

The bill revives a dustup between Petersen and the girls that occurred in April last year, when the girls were in third-grade and had 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 that was 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 manufactures 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 that this radical ‘balloon bill’ will not advance. I’m proud that 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.

The girls may have been beaten but were unbowed and this time came to Epstein with lots of preparation.

Troop leader Heather Sapp told AFN the girls last fall began amassing more data to support their campaign.

They worked with a graduate student at Arizona State University to develop a survey, she said, to determine how Arizonans would feel about banning the release of balloons.

What their survey found was that when the question simply tested their reaction to banning their release, responses were split 50-50. But when they made the connection to littering, “almost everyone who answered favored a ban,” said Sapp, whose daughter started the crusade. 

The Scouts treatment last year infuriated another member of the troop.

Mia Gonzalez, a 10-year-old Monte Vista Elementary student, said she couldn’t understand why Republican lawmakers would be so opposed to stopping the release of balloons and saving the lives of birds and other wildlife that eat their remains once they pop.

“We’re trying to bring awareness to people,” Mia said. “It’s littering and it’s very harmful to the environment. I think we got a lot of people’s attention.

“We’re not trying to ban balloons,” she stressed. “We’re just trying to make sure people don’t release them.”

Five states, six cities and two countries ban balloon releases because of the damage they wreak on the planet. Legislatures in a half dozen other states are considering the same.

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 that its service areas see 80 outages a year caused by Mylar balloons that were 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.

Pressure has been put on the Indianapolis 500 and the University of Nebraska football team to follow suit.

During the press conference last week, Epstein cited statistics showing that 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 that balloons are “the most lethal kind of pollution for birds and for every other kind of wildlife out there.’’

That 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.

Epstein also pointed out that the legislation specifically does not apply to the accidental release of five or fewer balloons.

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

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

Unlike last year, the Scouts aren’t going to sit back now and see if legislators will consider their request.

Sapp said the Scouts plan to return to the Capitol sometime in the next few weeks to seek individual meetings with lawmakers.

They circulated some of their literature to some offices last week and tried to visit with some lawmakers but many of them weren’t around.

The girls also are continuing to win more community support for their effort.

Mia said she’s been talking to her classmates ever since last year.

“They were disappointed that people are releasing them and that they came down and harm turtles and stuff,” she said.

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