Spain Seizes 45 Tonnes of Lithium Batteries Bound for the Black Market
Spanish authorities reported Monday the seizure of 45 tonnes of lithium batteries, all stored in an extremely hazardous manner, from a single-family home for eventual sale on the black market.
Agents of the country’s Civil Guard raided the home in Otero de Herreros, where they discovered the 45 tonnes worth of lithium batteries in a clandestine workshop that was nowhere near rated for storing such hazardous materials.
The owner, police said, was in the process of modifying the batteries so he could illegally resell them online.
Lithium is an alkali metal with several industrial applications; the most well-known is its use in rechargeable batteries. It can be found in the power sources of almost everything, from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles.
Police said that they suspected the home was a site for potential criminal activity back in January, after noticing that an individual, who lives in a town of less than a 1,000 people, was involved in a significant amount of international trade.
Surveillance of the suspect’s operation later uncovered that he used his truck to transport the lithium batteries in loads by the pallet, with zero observance of the recommended safety standards when handling such a volatile material.
As with all alkali metals, lithium is incredibly reactive and flammable. It should always be stored in a vacuum or within an inert liquid.
Exposure to the open air will quickly corrode it into a highly toxic tarnish that can severely burn the skin and eyes.
Inhalation can also result in pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs that obstructs the body's ability to absorb oxygen. Left untreated, it can be fatal.
Other health concerns include seizures and the poisoning of the thyroid gland and kidneys.
On top of all that, it is a highly volatile element. It becomes corrosive when in contact with any sort of moisture; when exposed to fire, it produces poisonous gasses.
Upon raiding the premises, police discovered that the suspect had excavated the entire lower section of his house to create additional storage space for the batteries. Many of them, investigators noted, were in a clear state of deterioration.
From his warehouse, the suspect allegedly repurposed many of the batteries for use in various appliances, depending on the needs of his customers, be they in Spain or abroad.
Police said that he conducted his business through online sales pages and private instant messaging groups. His neighbors were reportedly unaware of his secret operation and the health risks that they were exposed to.
One police photo shows heavy containers of batteries stacked high upon each other, all covered in large amounts of dirt, rust, and other contaminants. Another showed that some stacks were not resting on an even keel and were at risk of falling over.
It took six trucks, all authorized to transport hazardous materials, to haul the 45 tonnes worth of evidence away.
According to police, the suspect did not properly pack the batteries when preparing them for shipping, and never informed the shipping companies he used of the contents of his cargo.
Lithium’s market price on the London Metal Exchange is currently listed at over US$40 per kilogram, which would make 45 tonnes worth $1.8 million. Had he managed to sell his entire stock, authorities believe he could’ve netted roughly $1.65 million on the black market.