Container loaded with discarded lithium batteries catches fire

Photo of the fire damage caused by the burnt discarded lithium batteries taken by the U.S. Coast Guard
Photo of the fire damage caused by the burnt discarded lithium batteries taken by the U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert and is warning about the hazards of transporting discarded lithium batteries after a container illegally loaded with them caught fire while en route to the Port of Virginia, where it was set to be loaded onto a ship.

Thankfully the container was not loaded on a ship at the time. Rather, the container was being transported on a chassis from Raleigh, North Carolina when the discarded lithium batteries caught fire on the highway on August 19, 2021, resulting in loss of the cargo and significant damage to the shipping container.

It seems the shipping industry may have avoided another potential disaster since the container was intended for a maritime voyage to a port in China via a foreign-flagged containership. Upon initial investigation of the container, the responding fire department determined that the heat produced from the fire burned hot enough to create a hole through the metal container’s structure.

The bill of lading listed “computer parts,” not discarded lithium batteries, making responding to the fire more challenging. The Coast Guard said the incident could have been potentially catastrophic had the container caught fire after being loaded aboard the container ship.

Further investigation by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) determined that the shipper failed to properly placard, label, mark and package the discarded lithium batteries, and identified the cause of fire to be residual charge/full circuit, which led to a thermal increase.

A Coast Guard Marine Safety Alert, Safety Alert 01-22, has been issued to increase awareness about the hazards of transporting and discarding lithium ion batteries.

The safety alert comes after the loss of the Felicity Ace car carrier, which was reported to be carrying electric vehicles with lithium ion batteries when it caught fire and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Although the cause of the fire is yet to be determined, officials said the burning lithium ion batteries had complicated firefighting efforts.

Download the alert: Hazards of Lithium Ion Batteries

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