rechargeable-battery
Rechargeable lithium-ion battery with charger

The sale of lithium ion battery products — including e-bikes and electric scooters — would be limited in Riverhead Town under a proposed local law that aims to reduce the chance of fires caused by faulty batteries.

The proposed town code amendment would require that lithium ion batteries, chargers and adapters sold in the town be certified by Underwriters Laboratories, a longstanding private science safety company whose testing and safety standards for lithium batteries are recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Battery brands tested to Underwriters Laboratories standards display a ‘UL’ mark on their packaging. 

Lithium batteries are found in virtually every rechargeable electronic device, from cell phones and computers to transportation devices like e-bikes and electric vehicles. Rare and unlikely battery failures, which are often caused by design defects or damage to the battery, can result in extreme heat and cause a fire or explosion, according to the National Fire Protection Association

The local law, introduced by Council Member Bob Kern and the fire marshal’s office last week during a work session, follows similar actions by New York City to crack down on the sale and use of uncertified batteries after a rise in fires ruled to be caused by lithium batteries in electric powered bicycles and scooters — a popular mode of transportation in urban areas. 

A total of 13 people have died in fires attributed to lithium ion battery failures in New York City this year, according to the New York Times. The bipartisan effort in New York City also includes laws to develop new fire prevention recommendations and a public safety outreach campaign, according to NY1.

Under Riverhead’s proposed code, retailers would be subject to a civil penalty of $500 to $1,000 per violation.

Kern said the town started crafting the legislation after recent fires in New York City and in response to the development of high-density five-story residential buildings downtown. The only fire caused by a battery in Riverhead Town mentioned by officials was one house fire in Aquebogue.

“I think with downtown, we have a lot of type-five construction, which is wood-frame construction, and we’re moving more towards this transient type of people where there’s not going to be so many cars, maybe they’re gonna get lithium ion scooters,” Fire Marshal Andrew Smith said, “and we just want to make sure it’s safe when they’re storing the stuff inside these buildings in our town.”

If passed, Kern said the town will notify all the town’s retailers of the local law and expects most of them to stop selling batteries that do not comply. He likened the law’s impact to the recently passed local law holding retailers liable for stray shopping carts, which has been effective at removing stray shopping carts from areas around town, according to Kern.

The law would also ban the shipment of batteries that are not up to UL standards through online retailers like Amazon and Walmart, he said.

In an interview, Deputy Town Attorney Richard Stafford said the town would notify online retailers about the local law. Websites like Amazon have policies in place that prohibit the shipment of certain products to localities and states that have banned them, according to their website.

“It may be a little challenging to prosecute this,” Stafford said, referring to online retailers. “That’s a lot different than just being in a store, where we know it’s here. But the town’s going to do what they can to protect their residents.”

Currently, there are no regulations in the United States requiring consumer protection testing for lithium batteries, only the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s voluntary standards for manufacturers. The federal agency does recommend battery safety standards for consumers, including the purchase of lithium ion batteries up to Underwriters Laboratories’ standards. 

New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced federal legislation in March to require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop a testing standard for lithium batteries, but the bill remains in committee. That same bill has been introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including nine members of New York’s congressional delegation.

Lithium batteries sold on the European Union market must comply with the General Product Safety Directive, which requires distributors, importers, and manufacturers ensure their products are safe to use. This includes specific performance testing for rechargeable batteries. Under the safety directive, products are not required to be tested for safety by a party outside of the company. 

The town is also in the early stages of pursuing funding for public e-bike storage and charging locations, Kern said. New York City is creating public e-bike storage at public housing developments. The storage locations are intended to remove the potential for battery malfunctions to result in fires in residential buildings. 

Riverhead Town regulated electric scooters in anticipation of an electric scooter rideshare company coming downtown. The rideshare company never came. Under that local law, scooters can only be operated up to 15 mph and cannot be operated on roadways with a speed limit of more than 30 mph, or on Main Street. They also cannot be operated in designated bicycle lanes or on sidewalks.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com