By Robert Matas CP Writer — Novemebr 11, 2009

VANCOUVER (CP) — A spectacular fire at a plant in southeastern British Columbia that recycles lithium batteries may have started after a spontaneous malfunction in a battery, the company says.

The fire that broke out late Saturday afternoon was the fourth since 2000 at the industrial site outside Trail, B.C., that required the assistance of the local fire department, said Todd Coy, spokesman for California-based Toxco Inc.

Company staff have not yet identified the source of the blaze with certainty, but they believe the cause was different from those of the previous fires, he said.

"We learn from each experience and take steps to mitigate any future experiences. . . . In this case, what we think occurred (is) an internal short took place and one of the batteries in storage started the fire," he said, adding that the staff had no way of anticipating such an accident.

"We try to implement everything within our powers to prevent these things from happening."

The company is in compliance with its permit from the B.C. Environment Ministry, he said. However, Toxco officials will put together a plan for the ministry on how similar fires will be prevented, Coy said.

No one was on the 4.5 hectare site when the fire started and no one was injured but some residents have questioned whether the recycling plant has taken adequate safety precautions, especially after the previous fires.

New Democrat environment critic Ron Fleming said in an interview he intends to raise questions when the legislature reconvenes next week about the environment ministry's inspections of the plant and whether Toxco has met requirements of its permit for storage of toxic chemicals.

Fleming said a local resident told him that the odor of chemicals that escaped into the atmosphere during the fire lingered for more than 36 hours.

Vehicles near the recycling plant were covered in black ash. Orange flames shooting up from the storage area appeared larger than the nearby mountains, Fleming said.

Chris Stroich, a ministry official, said the batteries were in one of nine storage facilities on the site.

Ministry officials were concerned about contaminants being released into the air and the company notified local residents to stay indoors during the fire, he said in an interview.

Exposure to burning lithium could cause respiratory and other health problems, he said. However, the ministry had received no reports of any problems other than the smell.

The recycling plant handles about 900,000 kilograms of batteries annually, shipped from across North America, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

The batteries are of all sizes, from small cellphone batteries up to larger batteries weighing 1.4 kilograms.