At Least 3K Ordered to Evacuate as Factory Containing Lithium Batteries Keeps Burning

At least 3,000 people in Morris, Illinois were ordered to evacuate as a former factory containing nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries continues to burn after a fire began Tuesday.

The evacuation orders, which were supposed to last until Wednesday, were extended into Thursday by city officials. The fire, caused by the explosion of lithium batteries, is releasing toxic fumes, according to the Associated Press.

Residents living in about 950 nearby homes were ordered to leave alongside those in a nearby school, church and small businesses. People can return to their homes at 9 p.m. on Thursday.

"I really feel sorry that it's hurting the community," the owner of the building, Jin Zheng, told the Associated Press. Zheng's company Superior Battery is the location's property owner.

The former paper mill building was thought to be abandoned but Zheng was storing the batteries inhopes of starting a business to sell them as well as solar panels.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Lithium-ion Battery
At least 3,000 people in Illinois were ordered to evacuate as a former factory containing tons of lithium batteries keeps burning. In this photo, a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery for the Volkswagen ID.3 electric car is pictured at the Volkswagen car factory in Zwickau, eastern Germany, on Feb. 25, 2020. Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday asked the state's attorney general to pursue legal action against Superior Battery for contaminants released into the air and water as well as for improperly handling waste.

Zheng said he 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.

The fire continued to burn Thursday morning about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, and residents now will not be allowed to return home until 9 p.m. Thursday, officials said. An earlier order was to end at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

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 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.