Morris battery warehouse fire: A look back, one year later

MORRIS – When a warehouse full of lithium batteries caught fire last June, clouds of black smoke — potentially carrying hazardous chemicals – filled the Morris sky.

Nearly 4,000 residents living within a half-mile radius of the Superior Battery warehouse were evacuated from their homes as the fire burned. A handful had to spend a night at a shelter.

“The biggest hazard we’re dealing with right now is the smoke or the fumes from this fire,” Morris Fire Chief Tracy Steffes said during a news conference after fire broke out. “The gas is highly poisonous. It’s very deadly.”

The fire would burn for nearly two weeks. However, the after-effects of the fire at a Morris warehouse owned and operated by Superior Battery that started one year ago on Wednesday, linger. Aside from ongoing clean-up and air monitoring efforts by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Morris is suing in an attempt to recoup some of the costs to fight the fire.

June 29, 2021

The fire started just before noon, when storm water leaked into the building.

The warehouse, adjacent to a residential area, held up to 90 tons of lithium batteries, as well as lead, acid batteries, nickel cadmium batteries, roofing and other materials.

The Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District arrived and initially used water to try extinguishing it until they became aware that lithium batteries were on-site, according to court records.

Steffes later stated he was “personally notified by an employee of Superior Battery that the building contained roughly 100 tons of lithium batteries about 15 minutes after arriving on the scene.”

The use of water for fire suppression caused some of the lithium batteries to explode. An order was given to stop flowing water and get all members out of the “danger zone.” Units moved across the street to a residential area, according to a Morris Fire Department report.

Around 1 p.m. the Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District ordered the evacuation of what amounted to nearly 4,000 people from a 10-block radius around the site, which included residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

That evening, Red Cross volunteers set up a reception center and an overnight shelter at First Christian Church in Morris for any residents in need.

Many residents fond shelter with members of their family, but seven had to stay at the shelter the first night, according to news reports at the time.

The evacuation lasted until June 2, 2021 at 4 p.m., when it was deemed safe for members of the community to return home.

The fire burned until July 10.

Environmental effects

The fire’s effect on the environment remain a concern for the community and the EPA, as residential, industrial, and bionomic sites are in close proximity.

Directly north, west and south of the site are residential areas, with the east being an industrial area. The I&M Canal is about one quarter-mile southeast of the site.

Lithium batteries are a safety and fire hazard because they contain a flammable electrolyte and may become pressurized when damaged, causing them to rupture, according to an EPA news release.

Toxic air emissions from lithium batteries were released during the fire including, hydrogen fluoride, lithium hydroxide and volatile organic compound. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to such emissions may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin; coughing, shortness of breath, increased asthma symptoms, or pulmonary edema; and cardiovascular effects such as an irregular heartbeat or heart attack.

Because of the potential hazards, the U.S. EPA placed stationary air monitoring stations and directions near the perimeter of the evacuation zone to monitor the presence of chemicals in the air.

From June 29, 2021, to July 9, 2021, the airborne debris from the fire “deposited onto physical objects, and the ground, including residents and yards in the vicinity of the building,” according to court records.

The U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA inspected storm sewer outfall into the I&M Canal and confirmed there was no site runoff visible.

Morris Fire and other government agencies have continued to monitor the site to ensure residents’ safety.

The EPA began clean-up of the site in April, after it was determined that Superior Battery was not performing several work requirements of the legal agreement in a timely or sufficient manner, records show.

Ongoing Litigation

In August 2021, Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a lawsuit against Superior Battery Inc., claiming that the company’s actions posed a serious danger to the public’s health and welfare, as well as the environment, court records show.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for all costs, including oversight, sampling and clean-up. It’s also seeking attorney and expert witness and consultant fees, according to court records.

In a previous statement Raoul said, “The Superior Battery fire not only displaced residents, but put their health and safety at risk and caused a significant threat to the environment.

“My office, in collaboration with the Grundy County State’s Attorney’s office, will work to hold Superior Battery responsible for the damage caused,” he said.

Helland said it was a civil matter and there would not be any criminal charges related to the fire.

“This is an act of negligence, they failed to act like a reasonable person by storing batteries in a residential area with a leaking roof, criminal action requires intent, it was determined the origin of the fire was not criminal in nature,” Helland said.

“They will never face criminal liability,” he said.

Superior Battery filed a counter-lawsuit against Morris claiming that “representatives knew that it was not appropriate to spray water on lithium-iron batteries” and that “sand should be used to suppress the fire instead of cement.”

The city of Morris, however, says it had not received a request for a business license to allow Superior Battery to operate at the facility. Steffes has said officials were unaware of the batteries until an unknown employee notified him 15 minutes after firefighters arrived on scene.

The company’s lawsuit alleges that Morris officials had a duty to Superior Battery from engaging in “willful and wanton conduct” that could potentially harm individuals in and around the faculty and the property inside the facility.

Litigation is currently ongoing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it has begun cleanup at the Morris lithium battery site.

Moving Forward

“The cleanup of hazardous and potentially hazardous substances will be addressed under the federal government’s Superfund Emergency Removal Program, which has separate funds reserved to handle immediate threats to human health and the environments,” according a news release from the EPA.

The EPA previously stabilized the building and locked the warehouse, taking inventory of the remaining waste materials, and covering and securing material before cleanup began.

The process for cleanup will be time consuming. All batteries and waste will need to be shipped off-site for disposal. One the batteries are removed, the EPA will reevaluate to determine whether the building will need to come down.

Morris Mayor Chris Brown said he would like to see the space turned into “something positive for the entire community, potentially a green space.”

For information on the Superior Battery site, including air monitoring tables, visit response.epa.gov, select Illinois and scroll to Morris Lithium Battery Site.