The City Council on Thursday passed a slate of bills in an effort to prevent lithium-ion battery fires.
Over the past two years, lithium-ion batteries have caused a record number of fires, with the batteries that power e-bikes and e-scooters the source of the vast majority of those incidents, according to the Fire Department.
Some of the bills in the package restrict what kinds of batteries are available for purchase. Others aim to improve outreach and education about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and the proper use of e-mobility devices, which delivery workers in particular rely upon to do their jobs.
“We’re just trying to figure out how we can be successful in supporting the Deliveristas, at the same time being safe,” said Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), who sponsored or co-sponsored most of the bills.
Lithium-ion batteries are found in laptops, cell phones, toys and other ordinary items. But when the batteries are damaged or improperly maintained, they can burst into flame. So far, batteries sparked 24 fires so far this year and 219 last year in the five boroughs — causing the city to run out of room to store the hazardous material recovered after fires, as THE CITY previously reported.
“This first set of proposals are in the right direction, but it’s lacking a comprehensive plan for how we transition to this new era of safe batteries for micro-mobility,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Workers Justice Project, which helped establish Los Deliveristas Unidos, the organization of city delivery workers.
Guallpa emphasized the need for more charging stations and delivery hubs, outreach to the workers about the new regulations, and programs to allow workers to access safe batteries at no cost, as well as possible subsidies for e-bikes and a disposal plan for old and unsafe batteries.
“We’re building up a future of safe batteries that are more viable and accessible for everybody, but particularly those who rely on them to make a living,” Guallpa said.
Bills, Bills, Bills
The Council passed all but one of the bills in today’s package unanimously.
One bill, sponsored by Councilmember Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx), limits the sale or rental of e-bikes and e-scooters, as well as the lithium-ion batteries that power them, to those certified by a nationally recognized fire safety organization. Violators — both the users and sellers — would be subject to fines up to $1,000. The bill would take effect six months after it becomes law.
Councilmember Alexa Avilés (D-Brooklyn) was the sole dissenting vote on that bill. Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) abstained.
“A ban devoid of a comprehensive response is simply driving — will drive — these very dangerous batteries underground,” Avilés said, citing the lack of plans for charging locations and safe battery disposal, as well as the unknown impact on “immigrant-owned businesses” that sell the illicit materials.
A second bill sponsored by Brewer prohibits the sale of “second-use” batteries that have been reassembled with cells from used batteries.
Brewer admitted that the new regulations may present some hardships for delivery workers, including increased costs for the batteries certified to safety standards.
Another bill sponsored by Brewer requires FDNY to create a public information campaign, and an additional measure sponsored by Avilés mandates the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to provide guidance on best practices around storing, maintaining and charging batteries, with restaurants that employ delivery workers and third-party delivery services (like GrubHub) on the hook for distributing the material.
Under a final bill, FDNY needs to report five times a year on battery-related fires and actions taken to decrease the risks, starting next year. This measure will “help the FDNY to stay ahead of the curve and be better prepared to respond to any incidents involving lithium-ion batteries,” bill sponsor Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) said in a statement.
Mayor Eric Adams would need to sign the bills into law. His spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The Council’s vote came on the heels of the FDNY’s call last month for federal regulation of lithium-ion batteries.
The Council’s work on the issue isn’t done yet, with more lawmaking expected.
“This is very complex stuff but we are going to get on all the issues, including the battery swap program, including safe disposal, and all other issues that are raised,” Feliz said.
Council Majority Leader Keith Powers (D-Manhattan) on Thursday introduced new legislation that would create a buy-back program for used lithium-ion batteries so delivery workers could get new, safety-certified ones at low or no cost.
He also proposed legislation that would require businesses — delivery apps or restaurants — to provide delivery workers with fire-proof containers to store the batteries during charging.
“I think they are a good complement to the packages that we are voting on today,” Powers said.
Nikhil Gupta, a professor at NYU-Tandon School of Engineering, said the measures were a good start and that containment was the “most important” aspect — but that it should be expanded.
“It [the container] should not just be for charging, but for use on the bike itself to prevent injury if something happens,” he said.
For their part, the delivery workers will continue pushing for more resources so they can be part of the safety push.
“Our priority is to ensure that they deliver the infrastructure needed to allow people like us to do this work to earn a living,” William Medina, a delivery worker, told THE CITY in Spanish. “We want to do this, to make it safer … Deliveristas are used to and prepared to transition to this new area. It’s making sure that we do it together.”