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February 05, 2013
Safety board faults RCRA emergency permits

The questionable adequacy of safety provisions in RCRA emergency hazardous waste permits pulled the EPA into an investigation of a fireworks explosion that killed five people and wounded another in Waipahu, Hawaii, on April 8, 2011.

According to a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the RCRA emergency hazardous waste permit obtained by the subcontractor hired to dispose of contraband fireworks contained no evaluation of the method that would be used to dispose of the fireworks.  The CSB recommends that RCRA Subtitle C regulations be revised to require that rigorous safety reviews replace the use of emergency permits now authorized by 40 CFR 270.61.

Subcontractor qualifications
The accident occurred after the U.S. Treasury Department hired a contractor to dispose of 5,000 pounds of illegally imported display-grade fireworks.  Confiscated, seized, or forfeited fireworks are a regulated hazardous waste under RCRA because they are ignitable, reactive, and potentially toxic solid wastes. 

The contractor subsequently retained another firm to undertake actual disposal of the material.  When the subcontract was awarded, the contractor was not aware that the subcontractor had no prior fireworks disposal experience.  According to the report, the subcontractor obtained a RCRA 90-day emergency hazardous waste permit from the Hawaii Department of Health; the permit authorized “thermal treatment” of the waste at a local shooting range. 

The accident occurred when disassembled fireworks parts, including black powder, placed by staff of the subcontractor inside a magazine ignited.  The CSB and other investigators theorize that ignition was caused by friction sparks that occurred when workers were moving metal objects around inside the magazine.

Fireworks disposal

Much of the CSB report covers the absence of federal procedures “to consider safety performance measures and qualifications when determining the ‘responsibility’ of a potential government contractor or subcontractor to handle, store, and dispose of hazardous materials such as fireworks.”  

Accordingly, the CSB made multiple recommendations to the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council and the Treasury Department on reviewing the safety programs, incident history, staff training, and contract language when retaining contractors/subcontractors for work with explosives and any other hazardous materials.

The CSB also notes that OSHA’s process safety management (PSM) standard applies to the manufacture of fireworks but not their disposal.   The PSM standard includes the requirement to conduct a process hazard analysis (PHA)–a set of activities intended to identify, evaluate, and control hazards in a process associated with highly hazardous chemicals.

Incorporate PSM elements

Regarding RCRA, the CSB recommends that the EPA incorporate PSM-type elements such as PHAs and materials-of-change (MOC) reviews into its regulations to provide for a more robust safety program for entities conducting activities that are not covered by OSHA’s PSM standard, such as fireworks disposal. 

The CSB also reports “significant gaps” in industry standards pertaining to the safe disposal of fireworks in the U.S.  Therefore, a recommendation is made to the National Fire Protection Association to develop a new standard, consistent with environmental requirements, incorporating best practices for the safe disposal of waste fireworks.

The CSB states that at a minimum, the standard should discourage the disassembly of waste fireworks as a step in the disposal process; minimize the accumulation of waste explosive materials, and encourage practices that reduce, recycle, reuse, or repurpose fireworks; and incorporate input from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the EPA, and other agencies, experts, and available resources on fireworks disposal methodologies.

Click here for the CSB report.

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