The workers arrived at the bunker in the cool, damp still of dawn. The World War II–era facility in Waipahu, Hawaii, had, once upon a time, held huge numbers of anti-aircraft rounds and other munitions. It was now a remote public storage site, and a safe place for a different kind of explosive: unused illegal fireworks, confiscated by the federal government, now in need of disposal.
The five workers began the tedious job of dissembling the fireworks, by hand, one at a time. The process was simple: open up the cardboard tubes, separate the aerial shell from the black powder “lift charge” that shoots it into the sky and put each in separate boxes. The shells and tubes were to be soaked in diesel fuel, then burned at a gun range offsite. The workers had no specific instructions for the explosive black powder, other than to stack it up in the back of the bunker.
But at 8:30 a.m., a swift tropical rainstorm started hammering down on the crew. The workers rushed to get all the boxes and equipment back into the bunker, and then took shelter themselves just inside the heavy steel doorway. Their project manager, meanwhile, ambled outside to retrieve his phone from his pickup truck.
He was steps away from the entrance when an explosion rocked the bunker. Immediately, a fire burst up, detonating more boxes inside the facility. Concussed by the explosion and lost in the coal-black smoke, four workers never made it out; the fifth died from burn injuries just hours later. The exact cause of the explosion was never found, but investigators concluded that a spark had been produced by one of many sources: a dropped tool, a metal hand truck, the rolling of an office chair, static electricity from the rubbing of plastic liners.
It was supposed to be a routine job. But the tragic accident in 2011 shed a glaring light on how poorly regulated the job of disposing fireworks truly was.
The flaws were glaring, and everywhere. The company that received the disposal job, Donaldson Enterprises, Inc., was vetted by the government as an expert at disposing of unexploded ordnance — but investigators later found it had zero experience with fireworks. There were miscommunications on protocol and procedure that should’ve raised huge red flags, including the careless storage and transport of black powder. There were no rules on the federal, state or local level to provide best practices.
Most of all, it highlighted the fact that America is overflowing with illegal fireworks that have been confiscated but remain sitting in storage, with no permanent home and no money for disposal. Even now, nearly a decade after the Donaldson tragedy in Hawaii, a massive country-wide backlog remains.
It hasn’t gotten much easier to find the funds and labor for the job, even if regulations have changed dramatically over the last decade, says engineer and explosives expert Ali Reza, who consulted on the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s analysis of the 2011 accident. “Yes, there’s still a backlog today. The reason is simple: If you dispose of a thousand pounds of fireworks, there’s probably another 1,200 pounds that have been shipped into the U.S. illegally in the same time,” Reza says. “You have the sense that it’s storage that keeps getting replenished, unfortunately. And so you have hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives, in magazines and warehouses all over the U.S., and the location of the stashes aren’t publicized.”
The continual stream of headlines on the seizure of illegal fireworks, especially around Fourth of July, prove the point. Some 200,000 pounds of illegal fireworks were confiscated in Nevada last summer in a single bust. California law enforcement routinely busts illegal shipments at the ports and seizes smaller loads still worth tens of thousands of dollars, adding up to a backlog of 500,000 pounds in state facilities. Getting rid of all those fireworks has been delayed again and again because it costs too much money — because of state environmental regulations on burning chemicals, California needs to ship its confiscated fireworks to a different state for disposal, at the pretty cost of about $2 million.
While other states may have lower costs and fewer laws to deal with, the problem of backlogged fireworks remains. It’s a dangerous job that nobody wants to do on a budget, given the worst-case scenario proven by the 2011 Donaldson accident. So it gets put off, repeatedly, until a lack of storage space forces someone’s hand.
“There is awareness of the dangers of storing and disposing of confiscated fireworks, but the task doesn’t rank anywhere near the top of the list for local leaders and officials,” Reza says. “There used to be no structured mechanism to address these fireworks, but now our government is quite capable of disposing of them. But the money required makes fireworks compete with all the other issues, including things like road-building and trash services, to get resolved.”
Other deaths have occurred during the disposal of a wide spectrum of fireworks. Three soldiers, all trained in explosive ordnance disposal, died in 1980 when a mass of sparklers ignited in the back of a truck as they were loading it. In 2012, a man died in an explosion in Kansas while trashing commercial fireworks in a dangerous open burn. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted that these accidents could endanger the public, not just workers, because of the lack of transparency around where and how fireworks disposal occurs.
Moreover, plenty of people have burned down their homes because of improperly stored fireworks that ignited without warning, and fireworks warehouses have exploded from Mexico to China. It’s the inherent cost of an explosive but magical item, Reza says. The good news is that there are cheaper, more effective tools for the job now, including special “burn boxes” that can handle smaller amounts, he adds. And some jurisdictions are adding more funding to handle the backlog, like California, which recently approved $3 million to broadly tackle the issue of illegal fireworks in the state.
But given that much of the focus of the funding is on enforcement, and catching more disguised boxes at borders and ports, it’s uncertain whether a dent will be made in its massive cache. Reza is quick to put into perspective that when it comes to fireworks safety, the individual matters most; an average of seven people die each year from fireworks, with thousands injured, but tragedy overwhelmingly strikes in private homes and back streets.
For now, the huge surplus of confiscated fireworks remains a quirky failure in how America deals with an explosive obsession. And as long as we seek out aerials, huge fountains and other illicit illuminatory treats, that backlog will continue to bloat in an unknown storage facility, somewhere out there.