MORRIS — The United States Environmental Protection Agency has completed the cleanup at the site of the Morris lithium battery fire.
On June 29, 2021, multiple first responders were called in to respond to a fire at the old papermill on the east side of Morris, upon arrival responders were told the owner, Superior Battery, had been using the warehouse to store lithium batteries.
The warehouse was holding more than 200,000 pounds of lithium batteries. As firemen monitored the blaze, more than 3,000 residents who lived within a half-mile radius of the site were evacuated. Some were forced to stay in 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 the fire broke out. “The gas is highly poisonous. It’s very deadly.”
The fire was officially considered extinguished on July 11, by using Portland cement for fire suppression.
In September 2021, it was announced that Superior Battery agreed to pay for the cleanup, but the EPA determined Superior Battery was not performing several work requirements of the legal agreement in a timely or sufficient manner.
The EPA announced it was taking over the cleanup in December, according to the terms of the agreement made with Superior Battery.
The EPA said the cleanup of hazardous and potentially hazardous substances will be addressed under the Superfund’s Emergency Removal Program, which has separate funds reserved to handle immediate threats to human health and the environment, according to a news release in April.
On Thursday, the EPA announced all the batteries had been removed from the site, and the clean-up process is complete. The EPA will remain on site to continue monitoring and removing non-hazardous items from the lot.
“We’re still in the process of cleaning up some of the floor debris. The battery cleanup, we call it the time-critical removal action, that’ll be complete and the USEPA will be done,” Len Zintak, USEPA on-scene coordinator, said.
Zintak said, several subcontractors were utilized in the disposal of the various types of batteries, Heritage Environmental being the prime disposal subcontractor. The batteries were taken to various locations around North America, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mexico, and Canada.
The USEPA removed approximately 388,517 pounds of batteries from the warehouse, including 123,725 pounds of lithium-ion, 52,274 pounds of lithium metal, and 24,932 pounds of alkaline batteries. This does not include all of the e-waste, debris, ash, PPE, and flammable liquids removed from the site.
Zintak said the overall cost of the cleanup was approximately 3.5 million, all covered by the Superfund’s Emergency Removal program. Public Information Officer Stan Knudson said there was no additional tax burden on residents for the cleanup.
“The Superfund is something budgeted by the federal government, every single year. So, it wasn’t even additional money that we paid at the federal level as residents. So, there is no extra burden put on the residents of Morris because of this,” Knudson said.
The city was offered a $25,000 disaster reimbursement grant from the federal government that the city accrued in overtime costs.
“At the time of the fire, public works and police spent $30,000 roughly in overtime. So, the $25,000 is about an 87% recovery of those funds and that was the maximum amount that the disaster reimbursement grant would allow,” Knudson said.
Zintak said there is “no threat to the surrounding community” and there are no current concerns about the air, water, and soil quality.
Until the pending litigation between the City of Morris and Superior Battery has been resolved, the future of the building remains unknown.
“We obviously still have a lot of work to do with the fire department, they’re still in charge of the building until things settle down. Eventually, I would like to see the structure torn down, it is not structurally sound. It is notwithstanding some of the preliminary results we’ve seen. So, it would be nice to get it torn down and decide what we can do after that,” Morris Mayor Chris Brown said.