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Sue Lani Madsen: EV challenges no longer hypothetical in Fairfield

When a Tesla landed in their willow tree last June and burst into flame, Mark and Chris Mewhinney didn’t expect to still be cleaning up five months later.

“We’re still finding pieces of melted glass and metal in our pasture,” Chris said.

They have cross-fenced the pasture to keep their horses out of the impacted area.

Sean Thompson from Washington’s Department of Ecology hazardous materials response unit was there the day after the deadly crash in Fairfield.

He was appreciative of the Mewhinneys’ flexibility through the long process of testing and mitigation. It took 2½ months for the initial environmental cleanup. Three barrels of waste still sit by the road waiting for pickup.

It’s not the bits and pieces of auto body that worry the Mewhinneys.

It’s the possibility of contamination to the springs under the willows and the intermittent creek they feed.

Individual battery cells the size and shape of shotgun shells were launched from the crash site “like bottle rockets” said Chris, who was only about 100 yards away at the time.

“I saw a little plume of black smoke and by the time I got there it was flames 10 feet high. It was so fast,” she said.

Devin Billington, assistant fire chief for Spokane County Fire District 2, said a normal vehicle fire is usually out in 30 minutes whether the fire department is there or not.

“You can dump as much water as you want and they (EV fires) don’t go out, so at that point you’re doing more harm to the environment with the runoff. But if you don’t suppress the fire, the smoke is hurting the environment,” Billington said.

The toxic chemicals in the smoke cannot be removed from firefighter turnouts.

Replacing PPE at a cost of about $4,000 per person is a strain on tight fire department budgets. In an email, SCFD 2 Chief Eric Olson said his personnel were able to conduct operations upwind of the crash site and the district decided not to pursue replacement this time.

Neighbors downwind are still wondering what their exposure was.

How to best handle EV fires with the least harm is a matter of hot debate not only within the fire service but also at DOE. It needs to be discussed in the public square as well, without labeling people who want to face the challenges being dismissed as anti-EV Luddites. You can’t fix problems you won’t name.

“We’re in a technology blind spot,” DOE’s Thompson said. He noted the need to address concerns with smoke, water runoff and cleanup. “This is not a standard fire, it has a new component to it, a new level of energy.”

It’s about the batteries. A summit was held a year ago after an arsonist set a fire at a Home Depot, made difficult to extinguish by batteries in lawn equipment.

DOE is also researching the impact of backup home energy storage systems, known as power walls, and their potential for turning residential area fires into hazmat incidents.

The old fire service motto to just put the wet stuff on the red stuff doesn’t work on lithium-fueled fires hot enough to burn metal and boil the sap in a willow tree.

SCFD 2 decided to let the Tesla burn itself out and confined its efforts to protecting the surrounding pasture with 800 gallons of water.

Thompson said DOE tracked the runoff and sampled the soil where it was absorbed. It would have taken thousands of gallons more to attempt to extinguish the burning batteries to reduce air pollution.

“I worry about all the smaller volunteer fire departments I work in, there’s not enough tankers,” Thompson said, answering his phone from a fire station in Pend Oreille County. “If they had a fire and mobilized every apparatus in this county, they still wouldn’t have enough water.”

Developing the infrastructure to support a fully electric vehicle future means more than just adding charging stations and increasing electrical grid capacity by 20% to 50%. It requires naming all the problems in order to design solutions.

Battery-driven vehicles are heavier, hammer roads and are harder on tires.

On average, EV vehicles weigh 30% more than their modern counterparts whose weight has ballooned over the past three decades.

In 1993, a Mini Cooper weighed 1,400 pounds; the 2023 EV version weighs 3,144 pounds.

In a collision, the heavier EVs lead to “increased risk of severe injury or death for all road users,” according to the head of the National Transportation Safety Board.

As road diets have reduced the traffic capacity of urban roads, an increasing number of heavier vehicles in the transportation mix may require putting bridges and parking garages on a diet as well.

Engineers will need to evaluate the design capacity of existing physical infrastructure to determine the new carrying capacity.

We are forcing adoption of a new technology faster than society can absorb it.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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