The Washington Post

Agency calls for fireworks disposal guidelines

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is calling on five government organizations to strengthen federal guidelines and safety standards for disposing of fireworks, an area where no such provisions exist.

The board plans to announce its recommendations Thursday with its report on a 2011 accident that killed five employees of a company contracted to dispose of illegal pyrotechnics in Hawaii.

The board said federal procurement guidelines should require the government to consider a company’s safety record and expertise before awarding contracts to deal with explosive materials.

No such criteria was in place when Donaldson Enterprises won a subcontract to dispose of Chinese fireworks seized in Hawaii by U.S. Customs officials. The company, which specialized in handling unexploded munitions, had no experience with fireworks.

The Chinese pyrotechnics were seized because they appeared to be commercial-grade display fireworks labeled falsely for consumer use.

Alexandria-based VSE, a firm hired by the government to deal with seized property, awarded the subcontract to Donaldson based on convenience and cost, according to the board’s report. The company was already storing the confiscated fireworks and offered the lowest bid to get rid of them.

Contractor trade groups have long said that the government should only hire experienced and qualified companies to deal with hazardous materials, regardless of the cost.

“We should all be concerned if low price is being used as the primary award criteria,” said Elise Castelli, a spokeswoman for the Professional Services Council. “Clearly, that is not a smart way to procure such services.”

According to the board’s report, the nation faces a growing problem with the accumulation of illegal fireworks in storage facilities around the country. Shipping the fireworks and disposing of them have proven too costly and time-consuming for many local agencies.

The fatal Hawaii explosion occurred on April 8, 2011, after Donaldson workers stacked a large quantity of fireworks components near the entrance of a storage facility during a rainstorm, the report said.

The workers had disassembled the explosives by hand and soaked the empty shells in diesel fuel to burn them, the report said. The employees then placed the black powder from the shells in cardboard boxes lined with garbage bags.

The board did not say how the materials ignited, though its report offered a few potential causes such as a spark from a metal handcart, friction from a rolling office chair or a static charge from the plastic liners.

Donaldson did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment about the accident or the report.

The Hawaii Department of Health had given Donaldson a 90-day “emergency hazardous waste permit” under Environmental Protection Agency rules, authorizing the company to burn the fireworks at a local shooting range. The permit expired before the fatal explosion occurred, and it did not relate to the disassembling of the fireworks or to their storage, the report said.

The accident happened because of “insufficient federal contractor selection and safety oversight requirements” and “a significant gap in regulatory and industry standards,” according to the report.

The board issued recommendations to five government organizations, including the Treasury Department’s procurement office, the EPA, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The report said the EPA should conduct rigorous safety reviews before authorizing companies to dispose of explosive materials and require “the use of best available technology, safe disposal methodologies, as well as safety management practices.”

The board additionally recommended that the federal procurement office consider a company’s safety record before awarding contracts, and require experts to assist prime contractors who sub out the disposal of explosive materials to other firms.

“I hope the government puts these recommendations to law so no other family has to go through the pain we’ve gone through with the boys who lost their lives that day,” said Deborah Dulatre, the aunt of one of the accident victims, Justin Kelii, who was 29 when he died. “These regulations weren’t in effect at that time.”

The other victims included Robert Freeman, 24, an Army veteran who served in Iraq; Bryan Cabalce, 25; Neil Sprankle, 24; and Robert Leahey, 50.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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