Despite concerns, Waikiki fireworks permit renewed

May 13—A permit renewal for the weekly Friday night fireworks display off Waikiki ignited a broader discussion at Friday's Board of Land and Natural Resources meeting about environmental stewardship and fireworks in local culture.

A permit renewal for the weekly Friday night fireworks display off Waikiki ignited a broader discussion at Friday's Board of Land and Natural Resources meeting about environmental stewardship and fireworks in local culture.

Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics Inc., which has put on the aerial show for 30 years, was before the board seeking to renew its right-of-entry permit to set up and conduct the displays on a portion of Duke Kahana ­moku Beach for a one-year period starting May 26.

The fireworks, underwritten by the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, have been held at the same location since 1991, except for a two-year period during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Land and Natural Resources' Land Division recommended approval of the permit, noting the activity is "expected to have minimal or no significant effect on the environment and should be declared exempt from the preparation of an environmental assessment."

Before voting to grant the permit, BLNR members heard from no less than a representative of the Kaha ­namoku ohana, Patty Kaha ­namoku-Teruya, grandniece of the beach's namesake, who offered written testimony in strong support of Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics, praising the family-run company for its professionalism and safety standards.

Also offering an endorsement was famed Native Hawaiian waterman Joseph "Nappy " Napoleon, whose Anuenue Canoe Club is based at Duke Kahanamoku Beach.

"Just wanted to let you folks know they doing a wonderful job as far as I'm concerned, because when we watch the fireworks and the thing is all pau, they raking the rubbish and whatever they can find, and I'm always down at the beach, practically every day, and they're in the water looking, sweeping, " Napoleon told the board Friday.

"I don't know who's complaining on this thing ... but we're in Hawaii and a lot of local people go down and watch the fireworks."

When the current right-of-entry permit was approved by BLNR at its May 13, 2022, meeting, Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics was required to provide a sustainability plan before its next permit request that would look at longer-term measures such as tracking and reducing noise, emissions and solid-waste litter, and consider alternative media such as drones or lights instead of fireworks.

In its written submittal for Friday's meeting, the company summarized its impact mitigation report, saying fireworks emissions "can fairly be characterized as minor to minimal, especially in comparison to other common emission sources. Given the findings of other studies performed for long periods and for fireworks displays of much larger quantities and greater frequency, there is no expectation for adverse cumulative impacts on either water quality or soil, exposed or submerged."

The report did acknowledge the inert cardboard debris produced by the aerial devices could potentially produce adverse impacts if allowed to accumulate, leading the company to focus mitigation efforts on debris retrieval. Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics said it sends crews to survey and clean the entire firing range, including submerged areas, at least twice a week, and hired Sea Engineering Inc. to conduct independent dive assessments.

"We do feel that the show does have a significant community benefit, " said Bruce Albrecht, operations manager for the Keeau, Big Island-based company. "There are many, many people who enjoy it every week, and it's definitely not just visitors ; it's local people, too, that come out here. And, hey, it's a free thing to do on a Friday night, and it's great for businesses because it draws people into Waikiki. ... And what we really want to do is be good stewards."

Other written and oral testimony was overwhelmingly in support of the fireworks show, with a number of residents pointing out it provides a free, fun activity enjoyed by local families. Also offering strong support was Retail Merchants of Hawaii and a number of Waikiki business owners and hotels.

"The impact that this has had on local businesses has been monumental. ... To cancel the Friday Night Fireworks would ultimately be a detriment to local businesses that are only now beginning to recover from the pandemic, " said Pam Yagi, general manager of Hilton Grand Vacations Hilton Hawaiian Village, in written testimony.

In his written testimony, Prince Resorts Hawaii President Shigeki Yamane described the displays as "a hallmark /symbol of Waikiki."

"It was so wonderful when the first Friday fireworks were set off post COVID ! Continuing this tradition reassures visitors and our community that tourism is rebounding and thriving, " he said.

Yamane also remarked that Hawaii Explosives & Pyrotechnics is "very committed to our environment—diligently retrieving debris from fireworks in addition to other debris polluting our shores, after displays and early the following mornings. They have been providing us with the added service of midweek scans and debris retrieval. Thanks to them our beaches are cleaner than might otherwise be the case."

Tracy Yamata testified at Friday's meeting as a surfer who frequents the breaks off the Hilton resort and Ala Moana area. "I can tell you right now that when we didn't have the fireworks in COVID, it was just this huge void on Friday nights, " he said, adding that "literally thousands of local people " converge on Magic Island with their families to watch the show.

"Granted it might not be culturally Hawaiian, traditionally, but it's a Honolulu tradition that is free to the general public, which is unbelievable."

The lone testifier opposing the right-of-entry permit, who identified himself only as Moleka, "a Hawaiian national, " expressed concern about the explosions spreading particulates in the air and other possible pollution.

"Fireworks is essentially not a part of Hawaiian culture, but rather a Chinese influence, despite it becoming a common practice, " he said. "We need to put our environment, our natural resources as a priority over haole entertainment, tourism and exploitations of Hawaii's beauty for financial gain."

Before voting to approve the permit, BLNR member Aimee Barnes expressed similar concerns, saying that while she didn't want to be "a fun-killer, " the decision was "a hard call."

Earlier in the meeting, when recounting previous board discussions, she said, "Some of us had questions that were more fundamental about what the role of fireworks is in Hawaii going forward. As we think about who we are and how we want to represent ourselves, are fireworks a necessary part of that ?"

In response, Stephanie Pascual, company vice president, whose parents started Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics, said : "It's very important to note fireworks is a tradition in Hawaii, and we know through experience that when you try to take the fireworks away, because it is such a tradition, it's still there, it's just in an illegal and unsafe form. ...

"We feel like we would be the people that if you provided us the opportunity, we can do fireworks in a safe and legal manner ; otherwise this beach could be occupied with fireworks still on a Friday night but not by people who are professionals."

BLNR Chair Dawn N.S. Chang, who oversees DLNR, also called the permit decision "a hard one for me, " while acknowledging the overwhelming testimony in support. She explained that the agency is tasked with protecting and preserving Hawaii's natural and cultural resources. "We are not HTA, " she said, referring to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"As someone who's grown up here, fireworks—I shouldn't say this out loud—but culturally, Chinese New Year, New Year's, we pop fireworks. That is our culture, and it is to ward off the bad spirits, " Chang said. "There is a cultural significance to that. So that is a quandary."

Both Chang and Barnes cited the company's responsiveness to board concerns in voting to grant the permit. But Chang said she plans to have DLNR look more closely at the arrangement and whether the state would be better served with a longer-term lease, higher fees than the $250 per event now paid by Hawaii Explosives &Pyrotechnics, and the need for an environmental assessment before the matter comes up again in 2024 for renewal.