Letter on Donaldson Enterprises fatal fireworks incident

A letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN focuses on a fatal fireworks disposal incident in 2011, when five Donaldson Enterprises died in an explosion and fire in a storage magazine after disassembling contraband fireworks:

As a chemist with more than 50 years’ involvement with display fireworks, I find it appalling that in the Donaldson Enterprises Inc. incident the safest and most obvious means of disposal was apparently never considered (C&EN, Jan. 28, page 26). Simply firing the materials normally and allowing them to function as designed in a safe place would have been a far better course of action.

Display fireworks are fundamentally different from munitions and other classes of explosives in too many ways to list here. But following are a few of the more salient differences applicable to disposal: They are often complex in construction, not designed with disassembly in mind, and widely varied in the number of different pyrotechnic compositions that might be present in a single device. They are not reliably destroyed by water or other liquids, are perilous to cut into, and are dangerous to mass-incinerate whether wet or dry. Disposal involving such methods requires great caution and a full knowledge of the product and should be reserved only for situations where conventional firing is impossible.

It appears that the materials in this case were not damaged or defective, but were merely mislabeled. Had they been properly marked and classified for professional use, they would have been perfectly suitable for that purpose. Therefore, there was no practical necessity for disposal by unusual means.

This raises the question of whether the root cause of this tragedy was, in fact, bureaucratic: Might arbitrary yet rigid protocols have precluded a far safer and simpler disposal? It would not be the first time that safety has been sacrificed upon its own altar by misguided policy.

I’m not sure it’s safe to assume that the fireworks were neither damaged nor defective or that “arbitrary yet rigid protocols…precluded a far safer and simpler disposal.” I don’t think the Chemical Safety Board addressed whether the fireworks were in good condition–from what I understand, no one with fireworks expertise ever looked at them, which frankly seems to be the whole reason those five workers died.

As for whether bureaucracy was at fault, CSB actually pointed to a lack of regulations and protocols as contributing to the incident. From the CSB report (pdf):

Contractor Selection and Oversight Findings

  • The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which governs federal agencies’ acquisition of goods and services, does not specifically require a federal contracting officer 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.
  • The Department of the Treasury Acquisition Regulation (DTAR), the Department of the Treasury’s supplement to the FAR, does not impose sufficient requirements for safe practices and subcontractor selection and oversight with respect to the unique hazards associated with handling, storing, and disposing of hazardous materials.

Regulatory and Industry Safety Standard Findings

  • The CSB found a lack of regulations or industry standards that adequately address safe fireworks disposal. Federal or local codes, regulations, or industry standards do not establish safety requirements, provide guidance on proper ways to dispose of fireworks, or address the hazards associated with the disassembly of fireworks and the accumulation of explosive fireworks components.
  • While OSHA’s [Process Safety Management (PSM)] standard applies to fireworks manufacturing, OSHA has determined that the regulation does not apply to work activities related to fireworks disposal. Therefore, DEI was not required to implement a more robust PSM system for its fireworks disposal process. For example, DEI’s change to its disposal process led to the accumulation of material that created a mass explosion hazard. PSM elements such as Management of Change (MOC) would have required a safety review of this change.
  • Emergency hazardous waste disposal permits are granted in Hawaii and throughout the country to entities seeking to dispose of seized contraband fireworks because they are considered an imminent threat to human health and the environment. However, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) does not incorporate PSM-type elements in its hazardous waste permitting process, despite the extremely hazardous nature of the materials covered by these permits.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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2 Comments

  1. In my view, one of the biggest issues with the fireworks disposal itself was not doing thorough safety evaluations for the new protocols.

    According to the CSB video, the fireworks were initially to be soaked in diesel fuel and burned. But the destruction was incomplete (ie. some fireworks still went off). Changes started creeping up in the disposal process after that.

    I’m a frequent Chemical and Engineering News reader, and I was just curious on another incident that was reported there…has there been any new updates on the UCLA case?

  2. @Scott – Preliminary hearing testimony in the UCLA case wrapped up in December. The next court date is April 26, when the judge is expected to rule whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial (this was supposed to happen in February, but got postponed).