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Fear of fires leads San Diego officials to explore lithium-ion battery regulations

San Diego would be the first city in the county to battery storage and disposal

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An electric vehicle charges its battery at a public charging station in Kearny Mesa.

Rob Nikolewski

By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Concerns about explosions, fires and toxic gas have prompted San Diego officials to begin crafting proposed laws to regulate the storage and disposal of lithium-ion batteries, which power electric cars, scooters, laptops, smartphones and other devices.

The legislation would also impose new limits on where large-scale lithium battery storage facilities can be located.

City leaders praise the increasingly popular batteries for being energy-efficient and helping to fight climate change, but they say new regulations are essential because a rash of recent incidents has raised concerns about public safety.

“We’re not trying to eliminate them — we’re trying to make sure they are safer for consumers and our first responders,” said Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who is spearheading efforts to craft a new city law.

San Diego would be the first city in the county to regulate the batteries, which pose higher risk than ordinary batteries because they contain more energy and can ignite or emit dangerous gas when damaged or exposed to high heat.

[RELATED: Responding to lithium-ion battery fires]

The city has lost four trash trucks this year to lithium-ion battery fires and suffered more than $2 million in total damages. Officials say they’re concerned improper disposal could lead to battery fires in trash cans or at the Miramar landfill.

Battalion Chief Rob Rezende said there haven’t been any local deaths, but there have been many injuries, burns and cases of smoke inhalation.

City firefighters recently adopted a new set of procedures for dealing with lithium-ion battery fires, which has required new training guidelines. They are also exploring new tools they could use to put out battery fires.

“There’s no way for us to extinguish a battery fire once it’s happening inside the battery,” Rezende told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last month. “There’s no amount of water that will stop it.”

Von Wilpert is proposing new zoning regulations to limit where lithium-ion battery storage facilities can be located and new laws governing the sale, storage, use, rental and disposal of such batteries.

The Public Safety Committee unanimously endorsed her proposal during its Sept. 20 meeting. They directed City Attorney Mara Elliott to work with von Wilpert and city fire officials to craft the new laws and regulations.

Von Wilpert also wants a comprehensive public education campaign to help city residents understand the proper use, charging, storage and disposal of such batteries.

City officials say residents should never throw batteries into the normal trash or recycling. They must be dropped off at special locations or disposed of during eight special bulb and battery collections events the city conducts each year.

For details, visit call2recycle.org or sandiego.gov/environmental-services.


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Fire officials said no one should try to extinguish a battery fire themselves. Instead, they should quickly get as far away as possible. Warning signs of a fire include hissing or white gas coming from lithium-ion batteries, they said.

The batteries can emit hydrogen fluoride, pure hydrogen or carbon monoxide, officials said.

Recent incidents include a large evacuation in Valley Center caused by a lithium-ion battery fire last month, a battery explosion in a Barrio Logan apartment in April and a Carlsbad family being displaced in March when an electric scooter ignited in their garage.

Also, a battery fire forced a United Airlines flight from San Diego International Airport to make an emergency landing in February. In that incident, a passenger’s external battery pack caught fire, and four people had to be treated for smoke inhalation.

While the batteries date back to the 1990s, they have become much more common in recent years as smartphones, electric cars and other devices have become more ubiquitous. They are also used in lawn equipment, such leaf blowers and hedgers.

With California requiring all new cars sold be zero-emission starting in 2035, the number of lithium-ion batteries in the state is expected to keep rising.

A state law enacted last year, SB 1215, doesn’t regulate the use of lithium-ion batteries. But it requires recycling the buyers of products containing such batteries to pay a recycling fee starting in 2026.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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