‘Out of control’ fire aboard a massive car-carrier ship spotlights the calamitous consequences of electric vehicles

Seventeen miles offshore from an island belonging to the Netherlands, a nearly 20,000-ton vessel loaded with vehicles is burning “out of control,” and officials are in a race against time; Lea Versteeg, spokesperson for the Dutch coast guard, reportedly said, “we’re currently working out to see how we can make sure that...the least bad situation is going to happen.”

A Daily Mail article out yesterday reported that at least one crew member had died while “many” others were injured, while another outlet identified the site of the chaos as a priceless ecological gem. From ABC News:

Its location is close to a chain of Dutch and German islands popular with tourists in the shallow Wadden Sea, a World Heritage-listed area described by UNESCO as ‘the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world’ and ‘one of the most important areas for migratory birds in the world.’

Daily Mail noted:

The Fremantle Highway [the ship] is close to Ameland, one of four ecologically sensitive Frisian islands, situated in the Waddensee [sic] area just north of the Dutch mainland. 

Also called the Frisian Islands, the area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a rich diversity of more than 10,000 aquatic and terrestrial species.

This included more than 140 species of fish of which some 20 spent their entire life in the tidal areas along the islands' famous mud flats. The area also has a large seal and porpoise population.

Should the Fremantle Highway sink, ‘it would be a disaster of the highest order,’ the daily tabloid De Telegraaf said.

The tragedy is still unfolding, so the cause of the fire either isn’t known or hasn’t been made public, but per BBC:

The coastguard said the cause of the fire was unknown, but had earlier suggested it might have been an electric car.

Gee, who woulda thunk it?

Update via CBS News:

The Dutch coast guard said Thursday that the cause of the fire was unclear and that only about 25 of the vehicles on the ship were EVs, but in the audio of an emergency call released by Dutch broadcaster RTL, someone can be heard saying "the fire started in the battery of an electric car."

Given the details of this specific incident and what we know about EVs, all signs point to the culprit being…an electric vehicle! When EV batteries catch fire, they burn hotter and longer than most fires and the fire is “impossible” to snuff out, so mitigation strategies instead focus on “cooling”  (instead of extinguishing) the vulnerable or burning apparatuses. A prominent blog on fire science gives us the working knowledge of an EV battery blaze:

A high-voltage battery is made up of many cells packed tightly together inside a watertight, fire-resistant box. When a single cell fails, it is essentially a small explosive that produces a tremendous amount of gas and heat (1,200 degrees F) in tenths of a second. The failure is an exothermic chemical reaction that does not require oxygen from the atmosphere to sustain itself. The heat released from each individual cell is transferred to the neighboring cells, which causes them to fail as well.

Once a battery cell fails, it is impossible to extinguish the failed cell as the chemical reaction inside the cell happens far too quickly. The only way to stop a thermal runaway is by directly cooling the cells involved to ensure that the failed cell does not cause the cells around it to also fail.

So what are the implications? Well, staggering environmental damage of course, but especially if the ship sinks. Via Daily Mail, the Dutch coast guard asserted the fire is “still raging” and noted the ship was now “listing” — the vessel has taken on water and the trajectory trends towards a capsize. (To avoid sinking the ship, crews must refrain from dousing the ship with water.)

First off, smoke is billowing from the deck of the ship, so best case scenario, the fire ends with nothing more than plumes of pollution. Car manufacturers have largely replaced much of the steel and metal parts with plastic—a fire of this capacity would release immeasurable levels of synthetic chemicals into the atmosphere as those plastics burn.

Worst case scenario, the vessel overturns, and we’re left with millions of pounds of debris littering the sea floor (at a world heritage site no less) and oil spills. Furthermore, what about all the pollution created during the manufacturing process, including the mining for the rare minerals used in EVs, for cars that are now unusable? And, here’s an unanswered question, but since water does next to nothing to cull flames from an EV fire, are first responders spraying any toxic flame retardants onto the ship?

What about the financial ramifications? Versteeg, the spokesperson quoted at the opening, stated that of the nearly 3,000 vehicles on board, only “25” were EVs. These numbers would mean that the EVs on board account for less than one percent of the total load, so if an EV is in fact the origin of the fire, it would show you how substantial the risk is. Ergo, insurance rates would increase (if an insurer even chooses to cover such a hazard), which in turn makes shipping rates rise.

Now as it turns out, this isn’t the first time—last year, a fire ravaged and sank the Felicity Ace; the ship was transporting both electric and non-electric cars. As far as official narratives go, the cause of the fire is still “unclear.”

Are these little “eco-friendly” batteries the catalysts for massive environmental calamities? I’m not a gambler, but if I had to wager, I’d suspect…yes.

Image: YouTube video screen grab.

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