Air transport of dangerous lithium ion batteries investigated

Transport Canada is investigating a high-profile Richmond, B.C., company in connection with the air transport of potentially dangerous lithium ion batteries.

Dr. Battery's Richmond, B.C., operation under investigation by Transport Canada

Transport Canada is investigating a high-profile Richmond, B.C., company in connection with the air transport of potentially dangerous lithium ion batteries.

In one of four incidents under investigation, two batteries used to power electric bicycles allegedly exploded in the back of FedEx truck shortly after they were imported by plane to Canada by Dr. Battery — also known as Richmond International Technology Corp.

In another, UPS workers in Kentucky flagged 52 defective laptop batteries allegedly being shipped by the company. Originally packaged in fibreboard boxes, they had to be resealed in metal drums filled with fire retardant before being shipped north under special permit for further inspection by Transport Canada.

Details of the investigation are contained in information sworn in September to obtain a search warrant for Dr. Battery's Richmond warehouse. The documents allege violations of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. No charges have been laid, but Transport Canada confirmed the investigation is ongoing.

The case places Canada at the heart of one of the most hotly debated issues in the aviation world. Lithium ion batteries are ubiquitous in modern life; they power cell phones, laptops, electric vehicles, power tools and a host of other devices.

But the rechargeable energy storage devices also have the capability to spontaneously ignite, presenting a major challenge for airline regulation whether shipped in bulk or carried by individual passengers onto planes.

International investigations

A report by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates noted the presence of more than 81,000 lithium ion batteries on a UPS Boeing 747 cargo plane which crashed when fire broke out on board after leaving Dubai. Both pilots died.

And last October, Air Canada staff at Pearson International Airport reported that a pallet carrying lithium-ion batteries for electric bikes destined for an Austrian Airlines flight caught fire on the ramp. The Transportation Safety Board says that incident is still under investigation.

"It's been probably our primary focus for a decade or so. Not many of the things that we carry on airplanes have the potential to essentially spontaneously catch fire without a second ignition source and fire on any aircraft is very, very serious," says Mark Rogers, director of the Dangerous Goods Programs for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 51,000 pilots at 35 airlines in Canada and the US.

"It's a very big area of concern and it's one of the few things out there right now that's been causing fires in cargo departments on aircraft."

Global concerns about shipping

Dr. Battery boasts a global business brand reaching close to one million households in 40 countries. Ernst and Young named the founder and CEO Joshua Huen the 2011 Pacific Region Entrepreneur of The Year.

According to a BC Business profile the company has partnered with Translink and the City of Vancouver on an e-bike pilot project.

According to the search warrant, the B.C. investigation began in April, when UPS staff in Louisville, KY discovered a shipment of defective batteries, which were apparently being returned to Hong Kong.

"In some photographs, there were clear indications that the defect was a result from fire, which had occurred with some batteries as they appeared charred," the document reads.

The search warrant says the second incident was reported in May after a FedEx courier loaded 18 boxes of batteries into his truck for delivery to Dr. Battery:

"He heard two explosions and observed one of the boxes lifted off the shelf. The box then began to smoke from the inside out and eventually burned itself out."

The document says the electric bike batteries had been shipped from Shenzhen, China and were allegedly marked as "not restricted" under international regulations pertaining to lithium ion batteries with a watt-hour rating of less than 100.

Several of the batteries had white stickers covering the manufacturer's information which revealed a watt-hour rating of 325.6. They were fully charged at the time of transport.

Not certified for air shipments

The search warrant information claims Federal Inspector William Chung met with Dr. Battery staff in June. He was allegedly shown a certificate for training in dangerous goods.

"I examined the training certificate and noted that it was a valid training certificate for dangerous goods, but that it was only valid for road transport," Chung writes.

"All of the consignments we have been focused on were all air shipments, which required specific air training for the transportation of dangerous goods."

In January 2013, the International Civil Aviation Organization is set to introduce tighter regulations for the shipment of lithium ion batteries. The rules mean more batteries will be treated as fully regulated dangerous goods and included on pilot notification forms. They also provide for better training for shippers and better packaging.

George Kerchner heads PRBA - The Rechargeable Battery Association - a Washington, D.C., based organization which represents the interests of manufacturers who produce 70 per cent of the world's lithium ion cells. He wouldn't comment on the Canadian investigation, but says shippers are crucial to the safety regulations and the international harmonization of the ICAO rules.

"Shippers are the key component to this issue with regards to transport. They're the ones that offer these for transportation to the airlines," he says.

"They're the first ones entering it into the stream of commerce. So they're the key component to ensure that these batteries are packaged in accordance with the regulations and therefore can be transported safely."

Pilots seek tighter restrictions

Rogers says pilots would like to see even tighter restrictions in the future which would limit the total number of batteries and remove exceptions that mean crews aren't notified about the presence of some shipments on their planes. He says fire suppression is also a huge issue on cargo planes.

"I'd say we've made a lot of very, very good progress, but we're not where we need to be yet," says Rogers.

"What we would like to see is all these batteries identified so that the flight crew knows what they're carrying and also to have the total quantity on board limited to something that if there were to be an incident, the fire suppression system on the aircraft would be able to handle it."

Last month, the US Federal Aviation Administration published a list of 132 air incidents involving batteries since March 1991.

The list contains both incidents involving cargo and individual passengers. In the past year alone, crews reported burning batteries connected to an air purifier, laptops and a self-propelled surf board.

The list also notes two incidents at Vancouver International Airport last year: one where a Delta Airline passenger's camera batteries started smoking at the boarding gate and another involving checked baggage that started to smoulder during transfer at YVR, bursting into flames when an agent lifted the bag. Subsequent inspection revealed two large battery packs.

People on all sides of the issue say it's not realistic to ban lithium ion batteries from air travel. But Rogers says passengers shouldn't put any into checked luggage.

"One of the most important things is to make sure that if you have any spare batteries that the terminals are protected and you're not subjecting them to short circuit.

"So for the most part - carrying them in the cabin with you as most passengers do is the safest course of action."

A spokesman for Dr. Battery said the company wouldn't comment on the Transport Canada investigation while it is still ongoing.