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EPA faces challenges removing EV, solar batteries in Lahaina
By Nina Wu • Nov. 5, 2023 • Updated 9:10 am
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maui County are on a mission to find and remove as many electric vehicle batteries as possible from the Lahaina burn zone.
The EPA is working to safely remove lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles as well as charging stations and solar power wall systems. These batteries will be transported to a staging area south of Lahaina, according to the EPA, then inspected and de-energized in a salt solution.
Once ready, they will be crushed with heavy equipment and then shipped to an off-island recycling facility.
The Lahaina burn zone has, by far, presented one of the greatest challenges in hazardous waste removal due to the volume of lithium- ion batteries in the area, according to EPA Deputy Incident Commander Eric Nuchims.
“This is the first time a natural disaster response has specifically called out in our assignment to address lithium-ion batteries,” said Nuchims.
So far, the EPA has removed about 100 EV batteries and 300 solar system batteries from the Lahaina burn zone, but is asking for help in locating others.
Nuchims said some EV or hybrid vehicles in the fire-affected zone were not completely consumed by the fire and still have parts of batteries that are holding energy within them.
EV car owners should be aware that after being exposed to wildfire heat, the EV battery is likely compromised, officials said.
Also, officials said owners of plug-in EVs and hybrids should not attempt to start, work on or sit in their vehicle remaining in the disaster areas because they are likely to be very dangerous.
The batteries go into a process called “thermal runaway,” said Nuchims, which occurs when a battery cell short-circuits and starts to heat up uncontrollably, setting off a chain reaction.
“Once a lithium-ion battery is impacted and heated up, it’s like a time bomb,” he said. “It only takes one in the pack. Once that starts, it can spread to the rest of the batteries. It can be quite a violent fire, and it’s very hard to put out with just water.”
Additionally, the lithium- ion batteries can potentially release toxic gas emissions once damaged.
The EPA wants to make sure lithium-ion batteries are safely removed, which may involve cutting parts of the vehicle frame and flipping it over, along with de- energizing them in a salt solution for four to seven days.
They need to be deconstructed, according to Nuchims, so they can be shipped by a commercial carrier. The EPA has a contract with a recycling facility in Nevada.
Maui County has set a Monday deadline for EV owners to contact the abandoned vehicles and metals office regarding the removal of the batteries.
Those who do not want their batteries removed and have not filed an insurance claim should contact Maui County’s Abandoned Vehicles and Metals Office.
The county is also attempting to identify and document an estimated 1,000 vehicles found in public areas following the Aug. 8 fires.
The county says under federal law, vehicles declared a total loss must be reported to a national database to protect purchasers of used cars from concealed vehicle histories. Clearing damaged vehicles from the public right-of-way will help the county prepare for other phases of recovery.
The EPA on Friday estimated it has removed 90% of hazardous materials from burned residential and commercial properties in Lahaina, including more than 1,600 parcels.
The agency says it continues to apply Soiltac®, a soil stabilizer, to the ash footprint on all affected Lahaina properties, except areas of cultural significance, to help prevent toxic ash from entering the air, waterways and ocean.
EPA Incident Commander Tara Fitzgerald said the work is not done, but the completion of Phase I is in sight. The second phase, to be overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, includes the removal of all debris, including remaining vehicle debris.
“We will continue steady and strong until our mission is complete,” she said. “We have started work on the most technically difficult properties, which signal a near transition to the Army Corps work of removing all remaining debris on properties.”
MAUI EV OWNERS
Maui County is asking electric vehicle owners to contact the Abandoned Vehicles and Metals Office by Monday regarding the removal of the batteries. Visit
mauirecovers.org/damagedvehicles or call 808-270-6102.