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On July 11, Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffes announced that after nearly two weeks, the lithium battery fire which erupted on June 29 at a 70,000-square-foot warehouse in Morris, Illinois has been extinguished and is under control.

The incident site is still being secured and no formal investigation has yet been completed, but several clues have emerged as to the causes of the fire. Here, we’ll take a look at what facts are currently known, what emergency planning and safety system failures may have contributed to the fire, and what risk controls can help us ensure similar incidents are prevented in the future.

What Happened?

The incident was first reported around 11:45 AM CT at the old Federal Paper Board facility in Morris, about 70 miles southwest of Chicago. According to authorities, an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 pounds of lithium ion batteries stored in the warehouse caught fire, ultimately setting off a series of explosions that destroyed the warehouse and sent thick plumes of “highly poisonous” and “very deadly” fumes into the surrounding community.

Area firefighters responded to the fire shortly after 11:45 AM. Alarmingly, Morris Mayor Chris Brown stated that officials and first responders were unaware that the building, believed to have been unoccupied since the Federal Paper Board facility closed almost 35 years ago, was housing approximately 100 tons of lithium ion batteries. Chief Steffes indicated that firefighters initially attempted to suppress the blaze with water, unaware of the lithium ion batteries inside which explode when exposed to water. Firefighters’ initial attempts to extinguish the fire tragically caused it to intensify, and rain showers Tuesday night contributed to an already uncontrollable situation.

It was soon determined that alternate firefighting tactics and materials were required. By late Tuesday, a large portion of batteries contained in the warehouse were likely consumed, allowing first responders to remove parts of a wall to see inside. With the volume of the fire reduced, firefighters attempted to extinguish the flames using a fire suppressant called Purple-K.

Purple-K is a dry chemical fire retardant that is considered highly effective against Class B fires. It was likely chosen due to its water repellent, non-abrasive and non-toxic chemical properties, and that post-fire cleanup of Purple-K agent can be easily accomplished using a vacuum cleaner.

However, a lithium ion battery fire is more appropriately classified as a Class C or D fire, and the Purple-K was ineffective at suppressing the flames. Chief Steffes commented, “We brought over 1,000 pounds of Purple-K and we introduced that to the fire hoping we could kill it and choke it out. The lithium ion fire laughed at the Purple-K. Didn’t put a dent in it.”  Officials soon determined that the best course of action would be to allow the fire to burn itself out until it could be managed.

By Wednesday morning, local officials had ordered the evacuation of approximately 1,000 homes and businesses in the surrounding vicinity, displacing anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 area residents for more than 3 days until the evacuation order was eventually lifted late Friday, July 2.

Once the fire had diminished to a controllable level, firefighters applied high-flow water in an attempt to cool the batteries while applying approximately 28 tons of dry Portland cement to smother the burning lithium ion batteries until there was no longer any active fires at the site.

At the time of this article, Morris officials continue to monitor the site for potential hotspots and to control any flare ups, while Illinois EPA continues to monitor air quality and other potential environmental risks resulting from the fire, as well as soil and water sampling to determine if any contaminants from the fire had impacted surrounding communities or municipal water sources.

What Went Wrong & How it Could Have Been Prevented

Several factors have been revealed in the days following the incident that may have contributed to not only the fire itself, but also first responders’ difficulty in controlling the blaze. To be clear, no formal investigation has been completed at this point, but as safety professionals we can begin to draw potential conclusions about how these failures occurred based on what we already know. From there, we can start to determine what systems and precautions need to be in place to prevent such incidents in the future.

Hazard Awareness

Lithium ion batteries are so commonplace in our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that they are, in fact, highly hazardous materials. They contain highly reactive toxic chemicals that, if released, pose severe hazards. The primary concern is the potential for an irreversible reaction known as “thermal runaway” in which spontaneous internal or external short-circuit, overcharging, external heating/fire or mechanical abuse (puncture) causes a chain reaction that essentially cannot be stopped until the entire battery has combusted. This is precisely what happened in the Morris fire, but on a massive scale.

A common point of confusion is the hazard communication requirements for lithium ion batteries. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) does not typically apply to items or materials that are considered “articles” under the definitions of the Standard, which is:

Article – a manufactured item: (i) which is formed to a specific shape or design during manufacture; (ii) which has end use function(s) dependent in whole or in part upon its shape or design during end use; and (iii) which does not release, or otherwise result in exposure to, a hazardous chemical under normal conditions of use.

However, OSHA and EPA have clarified that the article exemption does NOT apply to lithium ion batteries and that they are subject to OSHA HazCom regulations. This is because although these batteries are sealed, they have the potential to leak, spill or break during normal conditions of use and in foreseeable emergencies, causing exposure to chemicals. Therefore, lithium ion batteries must be accompanied by an SDS that provides full information on their potential hazards including proper storage, handling and emergency response measures. It is uncertain whether the owner/operator of the Morris warehouse or its workers were aware of the HazCom requirements for the batteries on-site, or whether SDS were available.

Emergency Planning & Preparedness

As a hazardous substance covered under OSHA’s HazCom Standard, lithium ion batteries are also subject to reporting requirements under Sections 311 and 312 of EPA’s Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) Hazardous Chemical Inventory Reporting Requirements, which state:

40 CFR §370.10

(a) You must comply with the reporting requirements of this part if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) require your facility to prepare or have available a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) (or Safety Data Sheet (SDS)) for a hazardous chemical and if either of the following conditions is met:

(1) A hazardous chemical that is an Extremely Hazardous Substance (EHS) is present at your facility at any one time in an amount equal to or greater than 500 pounds (227 kg—approximately 55 gallons) or the Threshold Planning Quantity (TPQ), whichever is lower. EHSs and their TPQs are listed in Appendices A and B of 40 CFR part 355.

(2) A hazardous chemical that is not an EHS is present at your facility at any one time in an amount equal to or greater than the threshold level for that hazardous chemical. Threshold levels for such hazardous chemicals are:

(i) For any hazardous chemical that does not meet the criteria in paragraph (a)(2)(ii) or (iii) of this section, the threshold level is 10,000 pounds (or 4,540 kg).

In more basic terms, EPA requires facilities that store or use any hazardous chemical covered under HazCom in an amount greater than 10,000 pounds to:

In the case of the Morris lithium battery fire, what we can reasonably determine is that this requirement WAS NOT met in even the most limited sense. According to officials’ statements, they had no prior indication that the warehouse was occupied, let alone that it contained nearly 20 times the TPQ for hazardous chemicals (i.e. lithium batteries). If local officials and fire fighters had this information available upon responding to the fire initially, the severity and impact of the fire could certainly have been more effectively mitigated.

What’s also evident is that the warehouse owner/operator failed to develop and implement an emergency response plan including details such as:

  • Emergency contact information to obtain critical information in the event of an incident involving battery shipment and storage
  • Rapid access to SDSs and other hazard information including first aid, medical exposure support and emergency response assistance
  • Reporting procedures to comply with chemical spill/release reporting requirements (e.g. EPCRA 313, CERCLA)
  • Notification procedures for local emergency first responders and officials as to the contents and potential hazards of the facility’s hazardous chemical inventory
  • Dispatch of HAZMAT Response and remediation teams

Improper Handling & Storage

Like any other hazardous chemical, lithium batteries must be stored according to the precautions listed in Section 7 of the SDS. Once the safe storage conditions are identified it is necessary to inspect storage locations to ensure they are free of hazards, and conditions are consistent with SDS storage precautions. For lithium ion batteries, an example SDS provides the following storage precautions:

  • Avoid excessive physical shock or vibration
  • Store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area (25°C+/-5°C), (<85% humidity)
  • Keep battery packs in packaging material to prevent exposure to elements and conductive material
  • Do not store battery packs near heat, high humidity, open flame, sunlight, water, seawater, strong acids, strong oxidizers, strong reducing agents, strong alkalis or metal wire

As we’ve already mentioned, the primary hazard of lithium ion batteries is the potential for thermal runaway, which can occur due to short-circuit, overcharging, external heating/fire or mechanical abuse (puncture/rupture). Any number of improper storage conditions may have been present that contributed the Morris fire. Again, the warehouse where the batteries were stored was part of a facility that had been presumably unoccupied since 1980, and in all probability, was not properly maintained. It is likely that the building was not equipped with sufficient ventilation or cooling systems to keep batteries at a safe storage temperature and humidity. The building may have had roof leaks that allowed water to infiltrate the storage areas and cause short-circuiting of batteries. Workers inside the building may not have stored batteries in locations that were free from risk of physical damage to the batteries. It may have been something as simple as a package of batteries being dropped on the floor, causing one or more to rupture and catch fire.

In any event, training and awareness of proper handling and storage precautions, as well as regular inspection and corrective maintenance to ensure storage conditions were acceptable could have significantly reduced both the likelihood and severity of this incident.

Lessons learned

As with so many other devastating chemical-related incidents, it appears the Morris battery fire was caused by a cascade of failures that not only initiated the fire, but created the perfect conditions for it to quickly get out of control. Seemingly simple oversights of regulations and hazard controls compounded to cause an event that led to the complete destruction of the facility, the evacuation of more than 3,000 Morris residents, and potential long term health and environmental impacts that have yet to be fully quantified. In all likelihood, the owner and operator of the warehouse will face multiple violations of environmental health and safety regulations, years of litigation and civil liabilities, and suffer potentially irreversible damage to the company’s reputation that could ultimately cost them their business.

If they had only taken the required steps to ensure proper storage and handling of their hazardous chemical inventory, provided their workers with knowledge and training in those safety precautions, and developed an emergency plan that included a means of sharing of critical chemical inventory and hazard information with local officials and first responders, all of this might have been avoided.

VelocityEHS Can Help

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