Hazardous and Solid Waste, Personnel Safety

RCRA Emergency Permits and Safe Disposal of Waste Fireworks

In 2013, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reported on an explosion and fire that occurred in 2011 at a fireworks disposal magazine in Hawaii in which five personnel were killed. According to the CSB, the use of equipment that could cause a spark likely ignited black powder that had accumulated inside the magazine. The CSB recommended that multiple parties—including the company running the operation; the National Fire Protection Association; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—take actions to reduce the potential for similar incidents.

Fireworks over Honolulu

G Ward Fahey / Shutterstock.com

The CSB also reviewed the role of the EPA, which regulates waste fireworks as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The CSB found that the disposal operation was being conducted under a RCRA temporary emergency permit granted by the state of Hawaii. But the CSB said such emergency permits lack safety management provisions that could have prevented the accidental ignition. Accordingly, in a February 2013 letter to the EPA, the CSB made three recommendations, including the following two:

  • Revise RCRA Subtitle C regulations to require a permitting process with rigorous safety reviews to replace the use of RCRA emergency permits for the disposal of explosive hazardous materials, including fireworks. The new process should require the use of best available technology, safe disposal methodologies, and safety management practices, such as those required by OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard (e.g., hazard analysis and control and management of change).
  • Until the above recommendation is implemented, issue a policy guidance document to provide a regulatory process for the rigorous safety reviews noted above.

The EPA responded that it agreed with the second recommendation but determined that the relevant Subtitle C regulations are adequate, and the recommended revisions are not necessary. In July 2017, the EPA issued the recommended policy memo.

“Had [the RCRA regulations] been followed (e.g., no metal spark-producing tools and no other metal objects allowed, and explosive dust kept swept off the floor), they would have prevented the accident’s probable causes as identified by the CSB,” said the EPA in its memo. “In short, EPA believes that the issue is not with the regulations, but with their implementation.”

Emergency Permits Must Be Protective

One important issue in these developments is the difference between a RCRA permit and a temporary RCRA emergency permit. While RCRA permits are generally developed over the needed time period, an emergency permit must often be issued immediately, including orally and followed by a written permit within 5 days, and may not exceed 90 days. While acknowledging an accelerated schedule for issuing emergency permits, the EPA did not agree that these permits do not contain requirements to follow the best practices that would have prevented the Hawaii tragedy.

“These permits ‘shall incorporate, to the extent possible and not inconsistent with the emergency situation, all applicable requirements of parts 264, 265, and 270,’” said the EPA. “Because these permits need to be developed in a short timeframe [sic], the permit writer should consider incorporating the requirements and best management practices, as appropriate, in emergency permits that involve explosive waste, to prevent accidental ignition.”

TSDF Regulations

The memo lists three different sets of regulations that permit writers should consider incorporating into both RCRA permits and RCRA temporary emergency permits. Given that the Hawaii incident was essentially treatment of waste fireworks (separation of black powder from the fireworks tubes), we list here the EPA’s applicable regulations for treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs):

  • Annual safety training, including training specific to explosives, is required for all employees.
  • Access to waste fireworks storage areas must be controlled (for security as well as safety reasons).
  • Waste fireworks must be separated and protected from sources of ignition and reaction, including, but not limited to, open flames, smoking, cutting and welding, hot surfaces, and frictional heat.
  • Waste fireworks must be protected from sparks (static, electrical, or mechanical) that may originate from:
    • Wrenches, hammers, knives, dollies or carts, drums or other containers, or chairs;
    • Clothing, plastic bags, and other materials that are not staticproof; and
    • Cell phones or other potential spark-producing electronic devices.
  • Precautions must be taken to segregate or prohibit incompatible materials to prevent reactions that generate extreme heat or pressure, fire or explosions, or violent reactions.
  • Explosive dust on the floor must be kept swept up, and reactive/ignitable waste must be protected from frictional heat.
  • All units must have an inspection plan and be inspected and remedied to ensure compliance.
  • The facility must be designed and operated to minimize the possibility of a fire or explosion and to minimize hazards should a fire or explosion occur (e.g., fire suppression system).
  • All process changes must be implemented in accordance with the RCRA permit modification procedures.

The EPA’s memo, which includes the CSB letter to the EPA, the EPA’s response, and the relevant RCRA regulations, is here.