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Illicit fireworks will draw more state scrutiny

    Illegal aerial fireworks fill the skies over Honolulu on New Year's Eve.

A state task force formed to curb illegal fireworks imports is winding down its work and hoping to make recommendations to lawmakers when the Legislature convenes in January.

Sen. Will Espero, co-chairman of the Illegal Fireworks Task Force, said one of the recommendations he’s considering is transferring inspection of domestic cargo at Hawaii’s harbors to the state Department of Transportation’s Harbors Division.

Currently, the state Department of Agriculture is the only government agency authorized to routinely inspect domestic shipping containers, and only those containers labeled as containing agricultural products.

Experts estimate perhaps 5 percent of all domestic containers arriving on Oahu shores are inspected. The experts said they suspect domestic containers bring most illegal fireworks into the islands.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Department said it had no comment because officials had not yet seen Espero’s proposal. A spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said her agency also could not immediately respond to the idea.

The U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection is tasked with inspecting all international containers while the U.S. Coast Guard inspects containers, domestic or international, labeled as containing hazardous materials. It also will inspect containers if there is a "reasonable belief" that they might hold hazardous materials or contraband, said Chief Petty Officer Dustin Widman of the Coast Guard.

Matson Navigation voluntarily conducts spot inspections of its containers.

"Combined, Matson and Coast Guard, we’re inspecting less than 5 percent of our containers, that’s the issue," said Espero (D, Ewa-Kapolei-Ewa Beach). "The question is do we want to inspect more, and if we do, where do we get the resources, do we have the land, the space?"

The experts cautioned that whichever agency conducts searches of shipping containers, they are limited by the 4th Amendment, which protects against illegal searches and seizures.

Espero, who is chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said he also wants to see if federal, and possibly even state funding could be available to help police departments and other local agencies combat illegal fireworks.


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