CHICAGO (AP) — Toxic fumes and smoke from a burning former paper mill in northern Illinois that officials had believed was long abandoned but actually contained massive amounts of lithium batteries prompted officials to extend an evacuation order into Thursday for residents in the area.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday also asked the state’s attorney general to pursue legal action against Superior Battery, the property owner, for contaminants released into the air and water as well as for improperly handling waste.
The fire that started in Morris around midday Tuesday prompted city officials to order the evacuation of 3,000-4,000 people in some 950 nearby homes, a school, church and small businesses.
Reached by phone on Thursday, building and company owner Jin Zheng said he had hoped to start a business selling the batteries and solar panels but first focused on slowly fixing up the former mill he planned to use as a warehouse.
He said the site had no power or water when he bought it three years ago and needed roof and foundation repairs. Zheng said he also moved to Morris from Chicago and feels badly about the fire's effect on his neighbors.
“I really feel sorry that it's hurting the community,” he said.
By midday Thursday, authorities said there was no longer an active fire at the site about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
But residents still were not allowed to return home until after 9 p.m. Thursday. An earlier order was to end at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Tracey Steffes, chief of the Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District, said Thursday afternoon that he still wasn't sure when the evacuation order will be withdrawn.
Crews have used concrete to try to smother the batteries and a construction crew is digging a trench to capture any water runoff, Steffes said.
“We are doing everything we can, but we are not going to move people back into an area that is not safe,” he said.
Lithium batteries have exploded inside the building and fire officials have said they decided to let the blaze burn out because they fear trying to extinguish it could trigger more explosions.
The building — to the surprise of the fire department and other city agencies — was being used to store nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries ranging in size from cellphone batteries to large car batteries.
Mayor Chris Brown has said the city didn’t know the building was being used to store batteries until it caught fire, and that he knows very little about Superior Battery.
The mayor said the police department will conduct an investigation about the storage of the batteries and that other agencies, including the state fire marshal and the Illinois attorney general’s office, have already been contacted.
Zheng said he hopes some of the items stored inside the building will survive the fire and he can sell those to raise money for a cleanup.
“I definitely will be responsible to clean it up, to try to clean it up as much as I can,” he said. “I won't run. What happened happened. I have to face it."
The Morris fire came two weeks after explosions and a massive blaze at a chemical plant near Rockton, an Illinois town along the Wisconsin border, forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes for several days. Nobody at the plant or the surrounding community was injured by the June 13 fire that officials later determined was started accidentally during maintenance work.