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Lithium-Ion Batteries

After Deadly Fire, Mayor Waffles on E-Bike Battery Buy Back Bill

A day after a fatal blaze tore through a Chinatown e-bike shop, killing four, Mayor Adams did not "get stuff done."

12:28 AM EDT on June 22, 2023

Mayor Adams announced quicker FDNY responses to 311 calls about unsafe e-bike shops after a deadly blaze in Chinatown. Photo: Kevin Duggan

Yes it could save lives, but who's gonna pay for it?!

A day after a fatal blaze tore through a Chinatown e-bike shop, killing four, Mayor Adams betrayed his own "Get Stuff Done" motto by questioning the "cost factor" of a Council proposal to buy back shoddy e-bike batteries.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Adams did announce quicker Fire Department response times to 311 complaints of suspicious e-bike shops, but Hizzoner was hesitant to endorse the Council’s proposal to fund an effort for delivery workers to hand in faulty batteries and get the devices out of widespread circulation. 

“The difference between the Council and City Hall, the Council can spend as much as they want, City Hall has to figure out how to balance the books,” Adams said in response to a question by Streetsblog at a press conference at Confucius Square Wednesday afternoon. He did add, "But we’re looking at it."

“We are encouraged about finding ways of getting federal help, state help, and even Council help with some of their discretionary dollars to put into a pot to do the buyback,” he added. “So we’re hoping that they’re willing to look at some of their discretionary dollars to help with this.”

Amid a spate of battery-sparked fires, Council Member Keith Powers (D-Manhattan) in March introduced a bill (Intro 949) to provide new and safe batteries for electric scooters and bicycles at reduced or no cost in exchange for defective batteries.

Powers's proposal came just weeks after Streetsblog first floated the idea, and a whopping 33 members have signed onto the bill, just one shy of a veto-proof majority. As such, the pol called on Adams to get fully on board.

“There is a clear consensus that a battery swap program will save lives, which is why it has bipartisan support on the City Council and is supported by a broad coalition including the FDNY, delivery companies, and deliveristas. I urge the Mayor and FDNY to work with us to get the bill done and address this crisis,” said Powers in a statement.

Delivery workers often buy second-hand refurbished or uncertified batteries — which are at bigger risk of catching fire — since they’re cheaper than those approved by organizations such as the Underwriters Laboratory, which can easily run upwards of $1,000.

Powers did not put a price tag on his law, but with roughly 65,000 delivery workers in the five boroughs, a swap out could cost somewhere around $65 million. 

Meanwhile, the cost to life and limb has soared in recent years, as fires linked to lithium-ion batteries have killed nine people and injured 66 year-to-date through Monday, up from 40 injuries and two fatalities the year before, according to the latest FDNY stats. 

A couple of weeks after Powers’s proposal, Adams unveiled his so-called “Charge Safe Ride Safe Action Plan” which could include “piloting options like battery-swapping,” and more generally working with the state to incentivize buying safe and legal e-mobility devices.

When asked about incentives on Wednesday, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said the agency was in talks about it, without going into further detail. 

“We’re having conversations, we’ve had some over the course of the last few months and those continue,” the head of New York’s Bravest told reporters. “We have an interest as the Fire Department in making sure … that safe devices are available to our delivery workers, we recognize they depend on these for their livelihood.”

Delivery workers have been pushed to buy the batteries to cover ever larger sections of the city, said Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of Worker's Justice Project, the parent organization of Los Deliveristas Unidos.

"We are deeply concerned and saddened by the tragic fires caused by lithium batteries and support the City Council’s efforts to get unsafe batteries off our streets," Guallpa said in a statement. "Safety must be a priority and we are committed to advancing our work with local leaders to build a safe micro-mobility infrastructure through passing critical bills that will reduce these risks in a variety of ways such as building public charging stations across the city."

The app companies, who rely on their gig workforce to criss-cross city streets and deliver for New Yorkers, should also get involved, Adams said, but he shied away from directly calling on the big tech firms to pay up for safe e-bike batteries. 

“We need to bring people to the table with and figure that out,” said the mayor. “They should play a role, we want to sit down with everyone, the GrubHubs, the Uber Eats, all of them should play a role in making sure that we allow these batteries to be turned in, to make sure that we have a pot of money to be used to allow the employees to return them.”

Uber in April announced two pilot programs for buy-back programs, while grocery delivery app Getir offers its riders e-bikes or mopeds, along with phones and a helmet.

The mayor and the fire department called on New Yorkers to call 311 if they see “questionable activity” at e-bike shops, such as a lot of batteries charging close together, or less than three feet apart, “mazes” of extension chords, sales of batteries that look refurbished, or charging centers that don’t look properly licensed. 

Local fire houses will respond to those complaints within 12 hours instead of the 72 hours currently required.

FDNY and the city’s Department of Small Business Services also began handing out educational materials at corridors where there are a lot of those shops, Adams announced Wednesday, saying he wanted the effort to be “protective without [being punitive.”

“E-bikes are an important part of our transportation network, and essential to many small businesses, but there will be zero tolerance for activity that puts New Yorkers at risk,” Adams said.

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