Lithium ion batteries cause scrap metal fire in Tacoma; experts say air quality is now safe

TACOMA , Wash. -- Tacoma fire investigators say it was lithium ion batteries inside an electronic that caused a fire at Simon Metals early Monday morning.

Investigators say spontaneous combustion of the batteries sparked the fire.

The blaze erupted around 2 a.m. Monday in the bottom of a scrap pile and it took firefighters more than six hours to contain the flames.

Thick smoke billowed into the sky but it was the smell that got people's attention.

The blanket of smoke eventually disappeared with the wind but concerns lingered over air quality.

“I wouldn’t be breathing that stuff,” Erik Forseth said.

Forseth was miles away from the Simon Metals fire in a nearby neighborhood on Monday but he and others say they could see and smell it.

“It looked like thick fog but it wasn't -- it was smoke, nasty smell,” said one man.

The fire caused terminal workers at the Port of Tacoma to stop what they were doing to go inside, away from the smell. As workers took a break at the port, others with the EPA fanned out into different neighborhoods with an equipment called the Dustrak measuring the particulates in the air.

Simon Metals recycles a lot of household appliances and car parts. EPA experts collected samples to determine what exact particulates made it in the air. That data is expected to take a few days. But initial testing showed that air quality was safe in the moderate to good levels by late afternoon.

“Initially people were told to shelter in place but now that we have some data it's indicating that it's not a high concern at this point,” Jeffrey Fowlow with the EPA said.

Fowlow says despite the nasty smell there were no health concerns.

In addition to the air, experts also tested water, making sure the runoff from Simon Metals was safe before it traveled into the Puyallup River.

“I do know they have a treatment system here. Once they determine what's in the water they can treat it and then they can release it,” Fowlow said.

Q13 News checked in with the Department of Ecology, which said there was nothing out of the ordinary in the water due to the fire.

The president of Simon Metals told Q13 News that flare-ups are common but this one happened to occur over the weekend and no on was on site to prevent it from growing.