Trail battery-recycling fire leaves questions

The company that operates a lithium battery recycling facility near Trail, B.C., that was engulfed in a spectacular blaze over the weekend says it's still trying to figure out what toxic chemicals were released in the fire.

String of 6 fires raises residents' concerns about environmental dangers

The fire was still smouldering Sunday morning after crews spent the night working on the blaze. ((CBC))
The company that operates a lithium battery recycling facility near Trail, B.C., that was engulfed in a spectacular blaze over the weekend says it's still trying to figure out what toxic chemicals were released in the fire.

Residents of the southern Interior town also want to know why there have been at least five smaller fires at the facility in recent years.

In 1995 a major fire that burned through 40,000 kilograms of batteries at the facility. Then in 2000, another fire was caused by some lithium batteries, followed by two more fires that same year, and then another in 2008, making a total of six fires, including the one this past weekend.

Toxco Inc. spokesman Todd Coy said the Anaheim, Calif.-based company is still waiting for an audit of just what kind of batteries were in the bunker when it erupted in flames on Saturday.

"We will be working with the [Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary] to determine just what may have been released into the atmosphere, and I'm sure that that information will be made public," said Coy.

5 previous fires

Nearby residents are angry about the number of fires at the facility, including Lawrence Wallace who runs the Columbia Gardens Winery just 700 metres from the plant.

"The last time we were told by the Environment Ministry that this wouldn't happen again. It's worse. This time was unbelievable," said Wallace, who evacuated his family to get away from the smoke.

"All of a sudden, I could hear these loud explosions that sounded a bit like fireworks — the whole mountain actually behind us here was glowing from the fire down below," said Wallace, adding he believes the facility should be closed.

"I don't think that plant should be here. Period. It's not a big employer. It's a big hazard more than anything else."

Investigations underway

John MacLean, the CAO of the Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary, says they understand the residents concerns and will work with Toxco to address them.

The fire began Saturday evening, causing a series of explosions at the battery recycling plant. ((CBC))

"We are a community. We're an industrial community. And there's certain things we accept because of that," said MacLean.

The ministry of the environment says it is reviewing the design of the facility, but a formal investigation of the recent fire is the responsibility of local fire officials.

Fire investigators are now working with representatives of U.S.-based Toxco to identify the cause of the fire. They plan to interview the workers who were at the plant on Saturday.

"What happened in the building we don't know yet," said Terry Martin, deputy regional fire chief for Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue.

Too volatile to fight

When the fire broke out on Saturday it was so volatile fire crews couldn't use water to put it out. Neighbours described hearing blasts like fireworks and seeing projectiles shooting from the bunker full of volatile lithium batteries.

Firefighters could only contain the fire for the first several hours, as opposed to hosing it down, because lithium reacts with water. The fire eventually burned for 22 hours, before it was finally safe for firefighters to move in again and put it out.

No one was injured, though nearby residents were told to stay indoors as a plume of poisonous sulphur dioxide gas lifted off the burning mass of lithium batteries.

B.C.'s Environment Ministry described the health impact as localized and short-term, saying once the smoke and smell dispersed, tests showed there was no lingering spike in gas or particulate matter in the air, and the environmental impact from the burning batteries was little-to-none.

"It was a short-term risk while the fire was happening, but I think the local fire department, the ministry and the emergency operation centre adequately dealt with this risk," said ministry spokesman Chris Stoich.

The damage was contained to the site, Stoich said, and batteries that are still salvageable will be processed as usual, while other destroyed material that's not toxic will be disposed in a landfill.

The company's website said incoming lithium battery waste is stored in concrete storage bunkers covered by earth.

The fire at the battery facility also sparked a smaller fire at a municipal recycling plant nearby that mostly consumed bales of cardboard and other recycled materials stored outside.