Lithium Battery Truck Fire Prompts Emergency Response

Posted on 4/7/2023 by Roger Marks

Emergency responders in Birmingham, Alabama arrived on the scene of a transportation incident involving lithium batteries to find a cargo trailer on fire in a truck stop parking lot last week. The lithium batteries involved in the incident, one or more of which reportedly exploded near the back of the trailer, were being shipped for disposal and packed into dozens of metal 55-gallon drums.   

This incident remains under investigation and we do not yet know what caused it. Below a Facebook update shared by the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service following the incident, we discuss some important risk factors that come into play anytime that lithium batteries are on the move.

How Do Lithium Battery Transportation Incidents Happen?

Short circuits in lithium batteries happen most often when a cell or battery terminal (i.e., anode or cathode) contacts another cell or battery, or some type of metal. This contact causes electrons to move. But because there is no device to power, the battery’s energy expresses itself as heat instead. That heat is what can damage the battery or cause a fire or explosion. 

Incidents involving lithium batteries in transportation can also occur when a battery or battery-pack gets crushed, punctured, or otherwise damaged. Exposure to water or even moisture can cause a reaction and create the potential for an incident as well.  

Birmingham, AL Lithium Battery Incident 

Several of the drums shown in photographs of the incident scene (see the Facebook post above) are clearly labeled with Class 9-style lithium battery labels—suggesting that the shipper was aware of and followed at least some (if not all) of the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) related to lithium batteries.  

As for the packaging itself, a metal drum (steel, aluminum, or other metal) is an authorized outer packaging for lithium batteries shipped for disposal by ground—provided the shipper meets: 

•    General packaging requirements for all hazardous materials in 49 CFR 173, Subpart B, and 
•    Applicable rules specific to lithium batteries, in 49 CFR 173.185.

Those lithium-battery-specific requirements in 173.185 include protecting the cells/batteries from short-circuit during transport, for example [49 CFR 173.185(b)(2)(i)].  

Disposal Does Not Mean Dead 

The lithium batteries involved in this incident were on their way to be properly disposed of. The fact that a dangerous evolution of heat led to a fire in this case shows clearly that waste lithium batteries are not inert, empty, dead, or hazard-free. 

In fact, lithium batteries shipped for recycling and disposal are a major cause of fires and incidents in waste sorting, treatment, and disposal facilities. 

PHMSA Lithium Battery Safety Advisory (May 2022) 

In fact, US DOT PHMSA released a Safety Advisory Notice on May 17, 2022 that to raise awareness about the hazards of lithium batteries transported for recycling or disposal.

In that notice, they gave three common regulatory violations that can lead to or complicate an incident involving lithium batteries: 

  • Failure to protect batteries/cells against short-circuit in transportation,
  • Packaging damaged lithium batteries with other batteries in the same package, and
  • Improper markings and labels on boxes and drums containing lithium batteries.

Read more: Lithium Battery Safety Advisory (Lion News) 

In late 2022, an electronics recycler in San Jose, California agreed to pay $25,000 for allegedly causing three garbage truck fires by improperly disposing of waste lithium batteries generated via dismantling, recycling, and disposing of returned electronic devices. 

Training to Ship Lithium Batteries 

The Shipping Lithium Batteries Webinar provides training required by US DOT (49 CFR), IATA DGR, and IMDG Code regulations to ship lithium-ion or -metal batteries or cells by ground, air, or vessel.

The webinar provides hazmat general awareness, security awareness, and function-specific training to help satisfy mandates for hazmat employees found in 49 CFR 172.704, IATA DGR 1.5, and IMDG Code 1.3.1.

Join the next live training on APRIL 27. 

Can’t join a live webinar? The self-paced, interactive Shipping Lithium Batteries Online Course allows managers and employees to complete training when and where it’s convenient.

Tags: hazardous materials, hazardous waste, lithium batteries

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