Everyone Thought the Warehouse Was Abandoned. Then It Caught Fire.

Mary Olsen, a lifelong resident of Morris, Illinois, first caught word of the June 29 evacuation order through Facebook. She’d seen news reports documenting a fire in an abandoned warehouse in town earlier that day, in a neighborhood near the one where her aging parents—for whom she is primary caregiver—live.

She watched as news helicopters beamed aerial footage of the fire, with plumes of smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air, noticeable enough that people looking out of plane windows as they approached Midway Airport in Chicago wondered what was going on. She also saw evacuation orders for residents in the immediate vicinity of the fire on Facebook.

As the hours passed, the evacuation area continued to grow, until it engulfed the block where Olsen’s parents lived. . Then, the door-knocking started. Pairs of police officers and firefighters were going household to household, encouraging residents to take shelter elsewhere. Eventually, they reached her parents’ door.

“My parents yelled down to me, we were in the basement part of our home,” Olsen told Motherboard. “We just got told ‘We gotta go, we’re being evacuated.’”

Without much notice, she carted her parents out of their home to the county Health Department, where evacuees were instructed to gather for the time being, with little but the clothes they were wearing. Neither of them can drive anymore, and in retrospect, Olsen said she feels lucky she was there to get them out.

What started as an instruction for homes within a four- to five-block radius of the warehouse quickly became an evacuation order for the entire east side of her 13,000-person town, a 900-block radius involving about 4,000 residents.

Without much explanation for the fire, Olsen’s elderly father grew sick with anxiety over the course of the few days he spent in a local hotel room, she recalled. Olsen decided to shelter in her house just on the edge of the evacuation zone, closing all the windows and doors. But she had to leave home on several occasions to bring her parents food, medicine, and necessities.

“I’m having to leave by police barricades, saying, ‘I have to go attend to my elderly parents,’” she said. “It was very stressful.”

As it did for many Morris residents and city officials, the fire took Olsen by surprise. She had never caught on to the fact that the old Federal Paper Board mill was in use, much less for the storage of materials she was now being told were hazardous. She had never seen anyone go in or out of the building, nor even heard of it being repurposed. And now, whatever had been going on there was forcing them all to leave.

New records obtained by Motherboard using Freedom of Information Act requests show how emergency responders tried to put out the fire and the ensuing confusion. The documents, as well as interviews with first responders and experts reveal an emergency response system unprepared for a growing threat to a completely different kind of fire with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In a town like Morris—a half-hour southwest of Joliet, it has a population of about 14,000—this surprised Olsen. “​​You start to wonder, how did this happen? Why was it even allowed to happen?” she said.

The call came into the fire department around noon on the 29th. A structure fire had broken out at the old Federal Paper Board building, at the corner of East Benton and East Street. Chief Tracey Steffes knew that location, as any small town fire chief would. Like Olsen, he thought it was an abandoned warehouse. Last he heard, it hadn’t been used since a now-bankrupt agriculture company used it to store corn and grain some years ago. Steffes had driven by the supposedly vacant warehouse for years, seeing the overgrown weeds and decrepit trucks in the yard, just across the street from people’s homes, never giving any outward sign of use.

“I thought the building was empty, to be honest with you,” Steffes told Motherboard in a recent interview. So did Morris mayor Chris Brown and everyone else at City Hall. But about 15 minutes after getting to the fire, a man who identified himself as an “employee” of the company that owned the warehouse told the firefighters what was inside: Approximately 200,000 pounds of batteries, most of which were lithium.

Up to that day, the Morris Fire Department had never fought a lithium battery fire before, Steffes said. And now it would have to battle one of the largest such fires to ever occur in the country, and perhaps even the world.

As Steffes learned very quickly, lithium batteries do not catch fire, at least not in the traditional sense. Firefighters are trained to extinguish blazes with water, depriving the source of oxygen to fuel the flames. But lithium batteries don’t need oxygen. They experience what’s called a “thermal runaway,” the chemical equivalent of a train without brakes flying down a hill.

“Once the battery goes into that state,” Steffes said, “stopping it is next to impossible.”

Not only are lithium batteries extremely flammable, but their fumes are also toxic, potentially causing eye and nose irritation, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, or heart attack, among other possible health effects, according to a lawsuit subsequently filed by the Illinois attorney general.

There are likely a dozen devices in your home right now with lithium-based batteries. Your cell phone, laptop, wireless headphones, and smartwatch are likely powered by lithium batteries. Your bicycle or scooter may have one. Soon, the car parked in your driveway will likely have a very big one. Your home may have another large one to pair with the solar panels you may install one day. And your electricity provider will likely complement its wind and solar farms with extremely large batteries, too. All of these batteries, under the wrong conditions, are extremely flammable, and the fires they fuel are extremely difficult to put out.

The problem isn’t limited to warehouse storage. Waste management facilities and defective products are also vulnerable, but the lack of any reporting mechanisms make it difficult to know the true scale of the lithium battery fire problem. A recent EPA report  identified 245 fires across 64 waste management sites between 2013 and 2021, some of them experiencing chronic, repeated fires across landfills, transportation vehicles and electronics recyclers. But the report notes this is likely an undercount.

Do you have any information regarding lithium battery fires? Contact the reporters of this article: Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com and Audrey Carleton at acarleton45@gmail.com.

And, according to Ryan Fogelman, founder of Waste 360, an educational forum on waste recycling, without more training and resources for fire departments, the problem is likely to get worse. By making products like cell phones and laptops difficult to repair, recycling centers are often left with the burden of handling emergencies that can arise from the storage of a highly unstable element.

Fogelman has been cultivating a database of lithium-ion battery fires worldwide using news and government reports since 2016; to date, he has counted more than 2,200.

“The biggest issue is that people don’t know how to put these fires out,” Fogelman said. “These are starting inside garbage trucks, and in garbage facilities and recycling facilities, and they’re basically burning them down. And these guys aren’t prepared for it.”

Willie Cade, an electronics recycling expert, agreed. “What makes this such a serious problem is that we really don’t know how to manage it. I’m sure we will learn over time but right now there could be some horrific consequences.”

Nobody knows for sure how the fire started. It rained on the morning of June 29, and the lawsuit speculates a leaky roof dripped water onto some exposed batteries, causing a thermal event. But once it started, it was impossible to stop.

As the blazes at 900 East Benton grew on June 29, internally, within the Illinois EPA, staff were scrambling. “I have a 911,” one staff member told another at 1 p.m. on June 29 via Microsoft Teams in a conversation obtained via Freedom of Information request. “Grundy County. Morris IL. Potentially 100 Tons Lithium Ion Batteries on fire.”

“900 block radius,” the staff member said of the evacuation notice. “Biproduct of Lithium burning is Flourine Gas.”

Screenshot

Internal chats from Illinois EPA. Screenshot: Freedom of Information Act request

A compound that’s life-threatening to ingest or absorb through the skin, fluorine gas is just one of a cocktail of toxins that regulators found in the warehouse debris, per the EPA memo. Lead (which can “severely damage the brain and kidneys … and ultimately cause death,”); cadmium (which can “severely damage the lungs”); copper (which “does not break down in the environment,” and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea); nickel (which can lead to chronic bronchitis and lung and nasal sinus cancers); aluminum (which “may result in respiratory and neurological problems”); sulfuric acid (which “will burn skin,” and “can result in tooth erosion and respiratory tract irritation,”) and manganese (which primarily affects the nervous system and can cause behavioral changes) were all located at the site of the fire that day.

By 9 p.m., conditions at the warehouse were getting worse.

“Evacuation area has been increased to account for shifting winds,” one EPA staff member told John J. Kim, director of the Illinois EPA, via Microsoft Teams in conversations Motherboard obtained via FOIA request.

“Did the rain increase the fire a great deal?” Kim responded.

“It has increased significantly, the fire,” the respondent, whose identity remains unclear in the documents, said.

In the coming days, firefighters and staff at the EPA and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) were weighing the likelihood of the entire facility going up in flames if the unburned batteries erupted or thermal runaway from the fire got out of hand.

In the days that immediately followed the evacuation, a local Salvation Army started doling out free cleaning supplies to evacuated residents to mop up invisible pollutants and particulate matter from the fire that had made its way into their homes. It was a nice gesture, Olsen said, but a reminder of the uncertainty of the lasting health consequences of such a massive fire.

Once the evacuation order was issued, Steffes decided the priority was to figure out how to get people back into their homes as quickly and safely as possible. To do that, the fire department needed to control the fire enough to get air quality levels back to the point where people could return. To do that, the department needed to stop the fire from spreading from battery to battery.

After speaking to lithium battery fire experts around the country, Steffes decided to use 20 tons of Portland cement, an ingredient in quick-dry concrete, because it has zero moisture. This did not extinguish the fire, he said, but he was happy with it nonetheless, because “It bought us time.” The approach was similar to the public-health concept of “flattening the curve.” Controlling the pace at which the fumes were released rather than having everything burn all at once at dangerous levels had the benefit of moderating the release of potentially hazardous fumes.

After about 48 hours, Morris residents were allowed to return to their homes. The EPA placed air monitors throughout the evacuated region to keep an eye on levels of particulate matter, which, for the most part, continued to come up clear through the end of August, inspection reports obtained via the Freedom of Information Act show.

Even so, EPA inspectors continued to fear that the fire could easily reignite under heavy rainfall, or should a portion of wall or roof collapse. Steffes said the batteries continued to flare up on and off for the next 28 days. As of August 21, as recent as records Motherboard obtained show, the EPA was waiting for permission from the site property owner to access the property for cleanup.

On September 16, the EPA announced it had reached an agreement with Superior Battery to clean up the site, which “requires Superior Battery to clean up hazardous (and potentially hazardous) substances from the burned materials at its warehouse.” Superior Battery also must sample and analyze surrounding soil, water, and air to make sure it has not been contaminated, and mitigate the contamination if it did. The estimated cost is around $3.6 million. But the Illinois Attorney General’s office declined to clarify its contingency plans in case Superior’s owners do not uphold the terms of the agreement or lack the financial means to do so.

The batteries were put in the old paper warehouse by a company named Superior Battery, which was incorporated in Illinois in April 2012, according to state records. The company president is a man named Jin Zheng. The company does not have a website, nor is it listed in the Yellow Pages or Google Maps. All of the phone numbers Motherboard could locate through public records associated with Superior Battery or Jin Zheng no longer work. When asked how to contact Superior Battery, the business agent who registered Superior Battery referred Motherboard to a phone number for “the owner Tim.” (A Tim Wu is associated with the company in various public records.) The person reached at that number said, “We don’t have any business right now,” declined to comment further, and hung up.

The company specializes in batteries for “Uninterruptible Power Systems, Telecom Systems, Renewable Energies, Utilities, and Emergency Lighting Systems,” according to a screenshot of its old website included in a 2014 trademark lawsuit filed against the company. It also offered to service these systems and advertised the capability of “safe removal & disposal of used batteries.” Superior Battery also claimed to be accredited by the Better Business Bureau, although no such business under that name shows up on the BBB website.

It is also not clear when Superior Battery acquired the warehouse in Morris, located at 900 East Benton Street, on the westernmost edge of a residential neighborhood. In an interview shortly after the fire, Zheng told a local news outlet he acquired it in 2018. The property records for that site list the most recent transaction as taking place in 2016; a corporate deed for the property obtained through the Grundy County clerk’s office has the parcel being sold to Superior Battery, with a date listed as October 5, 2020.  According to the deed, the Grantee for Superior Battery is Tim Wu.

Regardless, at some point Superior Battery started using the warehouse as a storage facility for various types of batteries without anyone seeming to notice. According to an Environmental Protection Agency memo written shortly after the fire and obtained via a Freedom of Information request, at the time of the fire the warehouse had approximately 100,000 pounds of new and used lithium batteries; 50,000 pounds of damaged, defective or recalled lithium batteries; 30,000 pounds of nickel cadmium batteries; 10,000 pounds of nickel metal hydride batteries, 80 55-gallon drums of damaged lead-acid batteries; 20,000 gallons of runoff water; 10 20-cubic yards of “hazardous and non-hazardous debris”; and “numerous pallets of e-waste such as solar panels and TVs.” Import records show Superior Battery has received at least 20 shipments of batteries, cords, and other electronics from China since 2007.

There were two main hazards with the way Superior Battery allegedly stored its inventory, according to a lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general and interviews with experts conducted by Motherboard. First, the warehouse on East Benton Street was ill-suited for such storage. It was not hooked up to any utilities, so it couldn’t control the temperature or shield the batteries from the elements, both important safety mechanisms to keep batteries in stable states. The roof was also open in spots and prone to leaking. (Lithium batteries “can react violently with water and catch fire especially when damaged,” the EPA memo stated.)

The second problem was that Superior Battery doesn’t appear to have told anyone they were storing batteries there. It never acquired a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to store or dispose of waste at the site. Because firefighters didn’t know the hazardous materials were inside, it was impossible for them to respond to the fire appropriately. Spraying water on a lithium fire probably won’t help and likely only makes it worse—knowledge that’s only useful if firefighters are aware they are dealing with batteries to begin with. And because the Morris firefighters weren’t, they “used water for fire suppression” which, the lawsuit stated, “caused lithium batteries to explode.”

Even days after the explosion, state officials were still scratching their heads about the Superior and the abandoned building’s purpose. Bobby Elzie, manager of emergency response at the Illinois EPA, raised the matter to a colleague on July 1 in a Microsoft Teams message obtained via FOIA request. He linked to an OfferUp page tagged in Morris that belonged to someone with the same name as Tim Wu from the deed transfer. A slew of lithium-ion batteries, each a different voltage, were listed on the site, alongside a Toyota forklift posted for $7,650 and a children’s toy truck posted for $100.

“The RP’s site for selling things,” Elzie said in the message. “Doesn’t seem to be just storage anymore.”

Cade, the used electronics expert, visited the warehouse in mid-October. The air around the warehouse still smelled of smoke. In the center of the warehouse, unburned boxes sat untouched. Pallets with charred equipment were strewn around the site. Next to the boxes, a golf cart with a dented hood remained. Among the debris, two bicycles—one blue with swept-back handlebars and fenders, another pink and light blue with white tires—bear the scars of fire damage. Yet, somehow, they still look rideable.

Abandoned warehouse with debris

The warehouse in mid-October. Credit: Willie Cade

The EPA’s announcement that Superior agreed to clean up the site said the efforts would begin in October. But Olsen also says she drove past the warehouse recently, too, and it remains in disarray.

“There’s just temporary fencing and a couple of trailers blocking the view, but there’s still very much a building that’s still upright,” Olsen said. “We don’t know the status of where the batteries are, what stage of containment is, has the contaminant been removed, and if so, has it been removed safely? And what the long term effects are going to be on this.”

Individual batteries catching fire are a safety hazard, but a warehouse full of batteries is a potential catastrophe, like Morris experienced. And as bigger lithium batteries become commonplace, their storage and disposal become increasingly hazardous, particularly when basic safety protocols aren’t followed.

While there are several regulations around the safe transport of lithium batteries, there are few clear regulations around the storage of lithium batteries. Even the EPA’s own guide admits determining what chemicals are inside any specific battery can be difficult and whether it is hazardous enough to qualify the business as a “hazardous waste generator” which comes with additional regulations. Broadly, the EPA refers companies to the Code of Federal Regulations for hazardous waste management regarding “how to manage the waste, how to label containers, how long the waste can be accumulated on site, and where the waste can be sent, among others.” But there is no widely available central database showing which warehouses in your area are stacked with flammable, potentially toxic batteries.

It’s that potential for more fires like the ones Steffes had to fight that he’s worried about. He thinks regulations need to be updated to mandate batteries not be stacked so close together, be spaced a certain distance apart so one battery fire doesn’t lead to others, and create a reporting system so fire departments know which buildings store batteries. Cade agreed with all of these recommendations, particularly the reporting system, and added that he’d like to see fire departments across the country proactively trained on how to identify and handle lithium battery fires, such as in electric vehicles that catch fire due to damaged batteries from either a crash or manufacturer defect, rather than forcing them to learn as the batteries burn. He added that he’d like to see a national effort to simply track and identify these fires so we know how often they occur.

“Are we prepared for it? We’re not. I don’t think anybody in the nation is,” Steffes said. “I think we’re playing catch up with them, because I think we have a lot of lithium batteries out there that are some of the first generation lithium batteries that are already in end-of-life, or coming into end-of-life. And so we’re gonna have this issue across the nation.”

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