A proposed task force being considered by the Legislature aims to change that.

Given the vast quantities of fireworks on display on Oahu each New Year’s Eve, it’s not surprising that authorities have sometimes stumbled upon big caches of pyrotechnics.

So what have they learned about the distribution network that lights up the skies from the Waianae Coast to Waimanalo each year?

Surprisingly little.  

An officer holds a box of fireworks confiscated from a U-Haul in Kailua.
An officer holds a box of fireworks confiscated from a U-Haul in Kailua. (Screenshot/Honolulu Police Department report/2021)

The Honolulu Police Department in the past few years has twice come upon stashes of illegal fireworks adding up to hundreds of pounds, including a U-Haul van filled with them. These cases went far beyond the normal bust resulting from an officer seeing someone firing off a bottle rocket on the street. 

But none of them went anywhere or revealed anything about who shipped them here or how they got distributed once on the island.

Likewise, a contractor for shipping companies such as Matson found nearly 13,500 pounds of fireworks in a container in September. The container’s weight did not match what would be expected from the listed contents, leading to an investigation.

But the contraband was simply repackaged, labeled as hazardous and sent back to the mainland for destruction. Neither the mainland shipper nor the intended recipient on Oahu was charged. 

Federal agencies that might get involved, meanwhile, have been mostly dormant. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted nine fireworks seizures between 2006 and 2012. 

But neither federal entity has staged a single operation in the past five years.

Legislature Looks At A Possible Fix

One of the few fireworks bills still alive in the current legislative session aims to spark some action on a problem that has maddened many Honolulu residents.

Senate Bill 821 would set up a task force in the Department of Law Enforcement to stem the flow of illegal fireworks and get people to comply with the law.

Jordan Lowe, appointed to head the newly created Department of Law Enforcement, said it would not be the kind of task force formed to just study the problem and delay taking any real action.

“It’s to actually be operational to try to interdict the fireworks from coming in,” he said.

Lowe said the task force members already have a plan, but he was reluctant to share details that might tip off perpetrators about what to watch out for.

If the bill is approved, the task force will face a monumental challenge.

Fireworks enforcement in Hawaii has been hobbled by having no clear lead. Various state and federal agencies with different missions have the authority to inspect cargo only under certain circumstances. None has carte blanche to open containers shipped domestically at will.

Matson Cranes are idle in early morning hours at Honolulu Harbor.
Inspections of containers for fireworks would have to fit into the rhythm of the harbor to avoid disrupting the flow of goods. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Massive amounts of cargo go through the Port of Honolulu, and any inspection program would have to fit into the rhythms of the harbor without disrupting the flow of goods and potentially driving up prices.

One oft-cited tactic is the use of explosives-sniffing dogs. But while this approach shows promise, it has limitations.

“The ports are hot,” said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Matthew Vincent. “The dogs get tired. They can only be run for so long. Even then, it’s a hard thing to make a dent in the amount of containers.”

A Growing Demand For Action

But the pressure to do something is strong. While many locals embrace the boisterous tradition, others say it’s gone way beyond the norm of yesteryear. They’re upset about the loud booms that rattle windows for months leading up to New Year’s and now go off at random times throughout the year.

Pets must be sedated. Some run away. People with PTSD or asthma struggle with the unpredictable shocks and the smoke. Not to mention those who lose fingers or suffer burns setting off pyrotechnics.

Other potential dangers loom – stored fireworks blowing up houses, for instance, or an accident at the port that’s a vital lifeline to every resident of the state.

Despite the dangers, investigations in recent years have done little or nothing to slow down the fireworks flow.

The September seizure at the port got some publicity. The 13,500 pounds of fireworks were said to be worth $2.7 million. But while the media accounts seemed to signify action, the case didn’t amount to much.

After the shipping industry’s quality control consultant flagged the discrepancy in weight, the Coast Guard took apart the container and discovered aerial fireworks, Vincent said. 

The Coast Guard’s primary focus is on keeping people safe and protecting the harbor facilities. So it had the fireworks properly packed, labeled as hazardous material and sent back to the mainland. 

The FBI and the Sheriff Division of the state Department of Public Safely also looked into it, Vincent said. But because the private consultant made the discovery, rather than a federal agency, the gap in the chain of government custody could have caused a problem in legally handing off the evidence.

No civil or criminal charges were filed, Vincent said.

In February, Civil Beat made a request to the Coast Guard under the federal Freedom of Information Act for documents related to the incident. Despite Civil Beat agreeing to the redaction of the names of the alleged sender of the fireworks and the intended recipient, the Coast Guard still has not provided any records.

HPD also has discovered large quantities of fireworks.

A list of the fireworks seized from a U-Haul in Kailua.
A list of the fireworks seized from a U-Haul in Kailua, adding up to 450 pounds. (Screenshot/HPD report/2021)

On the last day of 2021, for instance, a Kailua resident, worried about the possibility of a fire, called the police to report that a neighbor was setting off aerial fireworks. Around the same time, an officer noticed a fusillade coming from the home near Kailua Intermediate School.

When the officer arrived, the partiers milling in and out claimed to not know whose house it was. The officer noticed a U-Haul van parked on the street, and could see through a window into the cargo hold. It was filled with what turned out to be 450 pounds of fireworks.

The officer saw a woman he’d known from earlier police contact, and she admitted she lived in the house. She and others were cited for allowing illegal fireworks to be set off on the premises. 

The police report redacted the names of those who were cited. But the police report number matches a citation issued to a woman living near Kailua Intermediate School. Court records show that the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney asked for more time to investigate the case, then dropped it.

A Civil Beat story in March showed that over the past five years, 94% of fireworks citations issued by HPD were simply dropped.

The police report includes no indication that officers investigated who rented the U-Haul or how they obtained 450 pounds of fireworks.

‘Insufficient Evidence’

Another case involved Allan Badua, who was cited for fireworks violations four times from 2017 to 2022. All the citations were dismissed.

In one of those cases, in 2020, police discovered an estimated 400 pounds of pyrotechnics in Badua’s living room.

Police responded to the Makiki residence that Badua shared with his girlfriend after neighbors reported a loud argument and what sounded like a gunshot.

Officers found some fireworks outside – and many more inside the couple’s living room, where some of the boxes were partially covered with a blanket.

For unknown reasons, the charges were dismissed. HPD’s closing report said the violation “will not be pursued criminally due to insufficient evidence needed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A hand-drawn map showing location of fireworks, shells and launchers in a Makiki suspect's living room.
An HPD officer drew a map showing the location of fireworks, shells and launchers in Allan Badua’s Makiki living room. (Screenshot/HPD report/2020)

In still another case, on New Year’s Day of 2021, police responding to a fireworks complaint found boxes of pyrotechnics stretching 50 feet along a road in Kailua. The resident of a nearby house said he didn’t know anything about them, but pointed down the road and told the officer, “Those guys down there have way more.”

The case involving more than 25 pounds of fireworks was put on ice because “there are no investigatable leads,” according to HPD.

Feds No Longer Active In Fireworks Cases

In a report a decade ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted that two federal agencies – CBP and ICE – conducted nine seizures of fireworks between 2006 and 2012 in Honolulu. The chemical safety board did the report because one of those seizures led to the fireworks being stored at a facility in Waipahu that exploded and killed five workers

The federal agencies have the authority to inspect all international imports. But CBP has not seized any fireworks in Honolulu in the past five years, a spokesman said. 

ICE, meanwhile, has not confiscated fireworks in Honolulu since 2012, a spokeswoman said. 

Vincent said the Coast Guard’s involvement in the September seizure of 13,500 pounds of fireworks was the only such case he’s been aware of since he came on board in 2017.

Two reports by the Legislative Reference Bureau – in 2010 and 2019 – found that fireworks get into the state in a variety of ways. Some aerial devices may be imported legally for large-scale displays, but then improperly diverted to consumers. But some are illicit from the start, imported without permits for sale to consumers.

To complicate matters, residents are buying fireworks-making kits sent by air, according to a resolution approved by the neighborhood board for Makiki, Lower Punchbowl and Tantalus and submitted as testimony to the Legislature. 

One need not be a retailer to arrange for a shipping container to be delivered to Hawaii – individuals can do it as well, and have it delivered to their homes, said Creighton Goldsmith, a retired CBP chief inspector and consultant on customs issues. 

Pyrotechnic devices found in Allan Badua's Makiki residence.
Pyrotechnic devices found in Allan Badua’s Makiki residence (Screenshot/HPD report/2020)

Some fireworks are imported for personal use, said the DLE’s Lowe, but others bring them in for profit.

Those in it for the money likely have accounts with wholesalers or manufacturers rather than going through retail outlets, he said.

Experienced investigators know what to look for, Goldsmith said – the container was shipped by an individual rather than a company, for instance, or the sender paid cash to avoid being identified if something goes wrong. An investigator might ask: If the supposed contents of the container are of little value, why did someone spend money to ship it?

It’s better, Lowe said, for investigators to have actionable intelligence “as opposed to looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Fireworks cases, he said, tend to be very labor intensive. “You’re going to have storage issues,” he said. “It’s not the normal type of contraband. You’re also going to run into the issue of proper disposal.”

There are thorny questions of jurisdiction and authority to inspect containers. When it comes to general cargo, for instance, the Coast Guard must either limit itself to random inspections or have probable cause to look more closely, such as a leaking or damaged container.

“We know what a monumental task it is,” Lowe said.

The only solution, he said, is to examine the entire distribution network from the port to the backyard New Year’s party.

“It’s really a matter of trying to get compliance from people through aggressive enforcement of the law,” he said.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author