Greg B. Smith and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, The City
When firefighters fought a blaze sparked by a lithium-ion battery in Chinatown early Tuesday that killed four people and injured two others, it wasn’t the first time the FDNY had arrived at the HQ E-Bike Repair shop.
On May 9, department inspectors visited the shop to follow up on safety violations issued in 2022. The FDNY had earlier cited the store for illegally using extension cords to charge bikes — an especially dangerous way to power the volatile lithium-ion batteries that give e-bikes and other electric vehicles their zip.
On their return visit, FDNY reps looked around and didn’t see any batteries being charged, and so deemed the store cleared.
Yet the FDNY did not check out the store’s many batteries in stock, the department acknowledges, even though a new law had recently gone into effect banning the sale of reconditioned or second-use batteries.
Such batteries, modified by installing powerful cells inside old batteries that have deteriorated due to wear and tear, are particularly dangerous, fire officials say.
Local Law 42 was signed by Mayor Eric Adams March 20. It immediately went into effect, exactly three months before the fire at 80 Madison St. that killed four people who lived above the store and critically injured two others.
The Fire Department is the agency responsible for enforcing that law, and on Tuesday a spokesperson who asked not to be named said a plain-clothed inspector went into the store last month for a “surveillance only” visit.
The inspector observed batteries in storage but not charging, yet none of the batteries’ cells were examined to determine whether or not the store was in violation of Local Law 42’s ban on reconditioned batteries. Lithium-ion batteries can catch fire even when they’re not charging, fire officials say.
The FDNY reported no violations related to that visit.
On Tuesday fire officials were quite specific on the cause of the fire there: lithium-ion batteries that burst into flame, causing a conflagration that engulfed the store and did extensive damage to the apartments above.
“It is very clear this was caused by lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes,” Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh told reporters outside the fire site. “It is very important that we get the word out at how incredibly dangerous this is. It is the exact scenario where there are e-bikes stored on the first floor with residents above.”
Lithium-ion battery fires in New York City have been a growing concern for the FDNY for the last five years. The number of such fires have risen from 30 in 2019 to 220 last year. Halfway through this year there have been 108.
With Tuesday’s catastrophe, there have now been 13 New York City fatalities related to battery fires so far this year, compared to six in all of last year.
While the FDNY has cited e-bike batteries as the cause of the deadly Chinatown blaze, they have yet to determine the exact cause or whether second-use batteries were involved.
Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), sponsor of the second-use battery ban, noted that when she asked Kavanagh about enforcement of that law during a May budget hearing, Kavanagh contended it was having a real effect.
“I was wondering if my law was making any impact on second-hand batteries on the street. To my surprise, she said they were having a great impact,” Brewer said. “They were able to do a lot more raids on stores that were illegally selling.”
This apparently did not happen at 80 Madison St., and fire officials did not say why they didn’t check for second-use modified batteries during that return visit. They also did not respond to THE CITY’s questions about how many individuals or entities have been cited since May 20 for violating the second-use battery law.
Councilmember Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx), chair of a task force formed in response to a deadly fire last year at the Twin Parks apartments in the Bronx, told THE CITY Tuesday: “We must ensure that fire safety laws are scrupulously enforced, including those that apply to businesses who sell, modify, and charge e-bikes. Though the facts of the tragedy are still being investigated, we know that fires related to e-bike batteries are powerful, quickly escalate, and can do a lot of harm to our communities.”
“We must do everything we can to prevent these fires,” he said.
The fire department’s interaction with the Madison St. e-bike shop began last Aug. 30, after inspectors got a complaint about extension cords used to charge bike batteries there. They paid a visit and hit the store owners, 98 Rivington Realty Corp., with multiple violations.
Fire officials said the violations were for the use of extension cords to charge the bikes, but also for failing to keep the charging batteries at least three feet apart, and failing to install a required firewall between the bikes and the rest of the premises.
Daniel Flynn, chief fire marshall, told reporters Tuesday the citations were upheld by the city’s Environmental Control Board after a trial and the owners were hit with $1,600 in fines, which were paid.
‘We Are Always Worried’
This alarming rise in fires and fatalities triggered the Council to pass and the mayor to sign Local Law 42 banning second-use batteries along with a handful of other regulations designed to increase the public’s awareness of the potential danger of these batteries if they’re not properly maintained and charged.
A law sponsored by Feliz and signed by Adams in March bans the sale or rental of any battery that does not meet safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). But that law doesn’t go into effect until September.
E-bike fires and malfunctions are a serious matter of consumer protection, not just for delivery workers but for all owners of e-bikes. Antonio “Toño” Solís, a delivery worker in Astoria, said tragedies like the one in Chinatown frighten workers and reinforce why the sale and manufacturing of the batteries ought to be more closely regulated.
“We are always worried,” Solís, a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos, said in Spanish. “We want safe batteries and equipment, safe places to park and to charge our batteries, so we can have peace of mind.”
Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Workers Justice Project, which organizes the Deliveristas, noted that workers often spend thousands of dollars on e-bikes and batteries, not always knowing if the equipment is up to federal safety standards.
Lawmakers at every level of government should focus on how to prevent unregulated and non-UL certified equipment from hitting shelves in the first place, she said.
Los Deliveristas Unidos has stepped up efforts to educate workers on how to properly charge, store and purchase e-bikes and batteries.
The group is hosting an e-bike safety workshop with Community Board 4 in Midtown Manhattan on July 10, and will host additional sessions next month in Astoria, Williamsburg and Park Slope. The group will debut the first of its permanent, federally-funded charging “hubs” in Williamsburg before the end of the year, Guallpa said.
Grubhub is the first and so far only one of the four major app-delivery platforms to offer a worker rest hub with e-bike charging and storage options — though one with the capacity to host a limited number of the vehicles.
Last week, in partnership with the e-bike rental company JOCO, Grubhub unveiled a rest hub in SoHo, which it describes as a pilot to last six months. The hub is available only to JOCO users: delivery workers who have JOCO user credits will be able to charge and return the branded, safety-certified bikes and batteries at the end of their shifts.
More comprehensive safety solutions are needed, say worker advocates.
“The reality is that New York City right now is flooded with non-certified batteries,” Guallpa said. “The city itself allowed these batteries to come into the market. Workers are using these batteries because this is what is available to them.”
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