Additional reporting by Gwynne Hogan
Fire officials issued their first violations for possession of tampered-with e-bike batteries only after a deadly June 20 fire at a Chinatown e-bike service store — even though the law banning those particularly volatile devices had been on the books for three months.
The first violation of Local Law 42, which bars the possession or sale of refurbished batteries, was issued at 80 Madison St. the day a faulty battery sparked a fire that killed four people who lived above the store.
A second violation was issued Tuesday to another e-bike store a few blocks away at 91 Canal St., fire officials confirmed to THE CITY Thursday.
The discovery of dangerous conditions at 91 Canal St. came as part of the FDNY’s push to look for refurbished batteries — which were banned in March.
“What is clear is that this location was essentially a ticking-time bomb,” Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said during a Thursday news conference. Since Friday, the Fire Department has inspected 179 shops, issuing 114 summonses or violations and one vacate order, officials said. The FDNY received about a dozen 311 complaints after asking the public to report locations where they believe e-bike batteries are being improperly maintained or charged.
Fire officials confirmed that an investigation revealed tampered-with batteries had been found at 80 Madison St., as well. During an August inspection, investigators had no access to the building’s basement, where multiple e-bikes and batteries were discovered after the fire.
The FDNY has issued violations for illegally possessing refurbished batteries at only two locations since the law went into effect March 20: 80 Madison and 91 Canal St.
Kavanagh charged Thursday that operators of e-bike shops have found ways to disguise second-use batteries since the law took effect.
“What the marshals are now seeing is they have found a way to hide that tampering,” she said. “So we are in active conversation with the City Council and the federal government on how to get around that.”
Fire inspectors targeted the 91 Canal St. store this week after a tip led to a check-in last month in which they found 129 batteries stored for charging.
The FDNY issued several violations for unsafe conditions, including batteries placed too closely together, and the particularly dangerous use of extension cords to charge the batteries. They also removed some batteries in dangerous condition, but did not issue a Local Law 42 citation.
The Department of Buildings also issued several more violations to the building’s owner, Canal Property Inc., after discovering two residential single-room occupancy units at the back of the store.
The e-bike store at 91 Canal St. is located on the first floor below three stories of what appear to be residential units. A sign recently hung on the building’s fire escape advertises “Loft For Rent.”
After the May visit, the city ordered the store to be closed, but first notified e-bike owners who had stashed batteries there for charging to retrieve them. The store, 91 Canal E-Bikes, was in the process of being shuttered when the Madison Street fire erupted June 20.
After that deadly blaze, the FDNY returned to Canal Street. Based on interviews with workers, fire officials determined they had been modifying batteries, with the FDNY issuing multiple violations for unsafe conditions and sealing the store.
Batteries that have been tampered with or are not safety tested by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) are prone to explosion, particularly if they are not properly charged and maintained. Last fall THE CITY found these fires erupting across the five boroughs in both commercial and residential buildings where e-bikes and e-scooters are stored and charged.
The number of lithium-ion battery-related fires jumped to 220 last year — a 633% increase from 2019, when there were 30 such fires. There have been 113 so far in 2023.
According to the FDNY, 23 people have died in fires sparked by e-bike batteries, including 13 this year. Among them are the four victims of the June 20 Chinatown fire, which claimed the lives of two men, ages 71 and 80, and two women, 62 and 65.