Evacuations extended in Morris following industrial fire

Chicago News

MORRIS, Ill. (AP) — Toxic fumes and smoke from a burning former paper mill in northern Illinois that officials had believed was long abandoned but actually contained massive amounts of lithium batteries prompted officials to extend an evacuation order into Thursday for residents in the area.

The fire that started in Morris around midday Tuesday prompted city officials to order the evacuation of 3,000-4,000 people in some 950 nearby homes, a school, church and small businesses.

The fire continued to burn Thursday morning about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, and residents now will not be allowed to return home at 9 p.m. Thursday as previously planned. The Morris fire chief said there are three new “hotspots” that popped up where the batteries are burning through the dry cement. 

The Grundy County Health Commissioner said air quality tests remain good.

“We made a lot of progress last night,” said Tracey Steffes, Deputy Chief at Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District. “This is good news.”

Morris fire crews sent a drone inside the Superior Battery warehouse. The footage shows piles of lithium batteries smoldering. Infrared video shows various hotspots, which firefighters targeted with 28 tons of dry cement. 

“It comes in a semi that’s able to be pumped with an air compressor,” Steffes said. “We attached a 200 ft. hose to the end of a track bucket, and we proceeded to apply this product to the top of the burning batteries.”

While crews did make headway, they’re concerned about what’s called “thermal runaway.” Authorities say batteries are potentially still burning under the cement and feel it’s not safe to remove the boxes of batteries inside that have not yet exploded. Meanwhile, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is referring an enforcement action to the attorney general’s office against “Superior Battery” to penalize the company for several alleged violations, saying: 

Superior battery Inc. has caused, threatened, or allowed the discharging of contaminants to the air and water, and disposed or abandoned waste at an unregulated facility.’ 
 
The Illinois EPA is asking the owner, Jin Zheng, to hire an environmental consultant to determine the cause of the fire, an estimate of the air contaminants emitted, and develop a plan to dispose of waste from the site. 

“It’s another example of just an environmental catastrophe that’s happening in our own back yard,” said environmental law attorney Ed Manzke. He is Is representing a group of residents filing a class action lawsuit against the chemtool plant in Rockton and its larger parent company Lubrizol, after the large explosion and fire there three weeks ago. Manzke says in this case, legal recourse could be much more difficult. 

“Ultimately, if the [attorney general] wants to go after the owner of the property for harms as a result of fire, there may be no money to recover in a case like this with no insurance. So it ends up being footed by the taxpayers of the state of Illinois.”

Lithium batteries have exploded inside the building, and fire officials have said they decided to let the blaze burn out because they fear trying to extinguish it could trigger more explosions.

The building — to the surprise of the fire department and other city agencies — was being used to store nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries ranging in size from cellphone batteries to large car batteries.

Mayor Chris Brown has said the city didn’t know the building was being used to store batteries until it caught fire, and that he knows very little about Superior Battery, the company that owns them.

Company representatives were not invited to a Wednesday news conference about the fire, officials said.

The mayor said the police department will conduct an investigation about the storage of the batteries and that other agencies, including the state fire marshal and the Illinois Attorney General’s office, have already been contacted.

The Morris fire came two weeks after explosions and a massive blaze at a chemical plant near Rockton, an Illinois town along the Wisconsin border, forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes for several days. Nobody at the plant or the surrounding community was injured by the June 13 fire that officials later determined was started accidentally during maintenance work.

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