Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Firefighters quash blaze in NHC recycling facility

The incident was first reported Aug. 25 around 6 p.m. at the Hwy. 421 facility when automated alarms called the fire service; the fire was caused by a ruptured lithium-ion battery. (Courtesy NHC Recycling)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A fire at New Hanover County’s recycling facility burned for about five hours before county firefighters extinguished the blaze, which originated in a pile of recyclable materials.

The incident was first reported Aug. 25 around 6 p.m. at the Hwy. 421 facility when automated alarms called the fire service. The recycling facility has sprinklers and heat-detecting cameras, which saw the rising temperature and notified first responders.

New Hanover Fire Rescue doused the flames in water until the pile was smoldering and removed the burning material from the storage building with a small excavator. A pump truck continued to soak the pile until it was extinguished.

The fire area spread to a few-hundred square feet, but no one was injured and the storage building was unharmed. New Hanover County Environmental Management Director Joe Suleyman said the quick response from firefighters and the build of the storage structure — stackable concrete blocks — helped contain the fire, but there was more fuel in the pile, including cardboard, paper and plastic.

The fire took hours to extinguish despite its small size. 

Suleyman said the fire likely resulted from a ruptured lithium-ion battery. The cells have seen widespread use in the past 20 years and are the fuel of choice in smartphones, laptops and electric cars because of their exceptional energy density, but that means they can release large amounts of energy as well. If a L-ion battery case fails, it could set off a reaction reaching the ignition point for the battery’s fuel at about 932 degrees Fahrenheit

New Hanover County Fire Chief Donnie Hall said lithium-ion battery fires are a challenge because they are self-oxidizing, meaning batteries supply its own fuel and oxygen source for the flames.

Hall said firefighting typically relies on removing one element of the fire triangle — oxygen, heat and fuel — to make flames impossible, but lithium-ion fires continue to burn even when cooled. The exact cause of the fire on Friday is a mystery because the offending material was reduced to ash.

Suleyman said it is difficult to determine how many batteries ending up in the waste stream has increased over the years, and the county reacted to that fact eight years ago when it opened a household hazardous waste facility.

“Batteries should never be disposed of in the trash or in your recycling bin,” he said. “We have made battery recycling easy with drop-off locations at all NHC libraries, UNCW, CFCC, the [hazardous waste facility], the Government Center and there is a battery collection bin at each of our seven recycling drop-off sites located throughout the county.”

The EPA advises lithium-ion batteries should always be taken to special facilities to dispose of, and recommends taping battery terminals and connections with non-conductive tape or placing them in plastic bags.

This was the first fire at the recycling center in more than five years. The last was in 2018. Fires at the county landfill are more frequent. There was one in January and last June. Suleyman said none of the fires have resulted in injuries and serious property damage.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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