Lime scooters keep ending up in the Spokane River. But despite potentially harmful batteries, agencies don't know who should pull them out (2024)

The scooters lie at the bottom of the Spokane River, blurry blobs of green and white under the shimmering water.

Sometimes vandals chuck them in, forming clusters beneath the walking bridges in Riverfront Park. They show up here and there downriver, too, perhaps carried by strong currents in spring. A few dead Lime scooters rest in the sediment of Latah Creek, which empties into the Spokane River a mile or so west of downtown.

River experts say people have thrown hundreds of the battery-powered scooters into Spokane’s waters. And they all agree that’s a problem.

“Sooner or later, those batteries will do bad things,” said Tim Sharp, a magnet fisherman who hauls scooters and other debris out of the Spokane River as a hobby. “My biggest thing is I don’t want to see the scooters harm the fish.”

Lime scooters first appeared in Spokane five years ago when the company launched a small pilot program. The city signed a contract with Lime shortly thereafter, and today Spokane is home to about 1,500 scooters from March to November every year.

Spokane has granted Lime a monopoly and doesn’t allow any competitors to operate in the city. The Spokane City Council will reassess Lime’s contract in the coming months before it expires at the end of November.

Electric scooters aren’t new, but in the past few years well-funded startups such as Lime have made them common sights in cities around the world.

Lime markets its scooters and bikes as a convenient, cheap and environmentally friendly form of transportation. They’re easy to find throughout Spokane and nearly anyone can rent one so long as they have the Lime app on their smartphone. Lime says millions of people use its vehicles every year.

The e-scooter boom hasn’t been without downsides, however. Cities have been caught flatfooted as thousands of electric scooters have appeared, almost overnight, on their streets.

Scooters scattered haphazardly on sidewalks can create obstacles for people in wheelchairs and the blind. Pedestrians often say it’s frightening or unsafe when scooter riders whiz by them. Environmentalists argue scooters have become a pollutant in waterways.

Wherever electric scooters show up, people throw them in rivers, lakes and oceans. No one seems to have a strong theory for why.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Paul Swanson, one of Sharp’s fellow magnet fishermen. “I have no clue. Bad parenting?”

Eugene Mabie, who magnet fishes with Sharp and Swanson, said staff in Spokane’s parks department have told him many of the Lime vandals heave them into the river while drunk or high.

Lime scooters pose a serious threat to aquatic life according to Hugh Lefcort, a Gonzaga University biology professor who specializes in ecotoxicology.

Unlike iron, lithium and heavy metals in rechargeable batteries are toxic, Lefcort said. High doses of lithium can impact heart contraction in mammals. The cobalt and nickel in batteries can cause damage, too.

“All heavy metals are toxic to different degrees,” Lefcort said. “Some of them affect kidneys, some of them have neurological effects. They definitely affect egg development of salmon and aquatic insects.”

Russell Murphy, Lime’s communications director, said the company uses the best available waterproofing technology to encase its batteries.

“Water ingress is not a strong concern,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to say we’re 100% confident that nothing is able to leak out, but we waterproof our batteries to the strongest extent possible.”

Many Lime scooters have sat in the Spokane River for years, however.

Since 2019, Swanson, Sharp and Mabie’s magnet fishing club has pulled out 257 Lime scooters. The fishermen give the scooters back to Lime, and while they don’t do it for the money, Lime has intermittently paid them for the work. Sharp said the company has given the club about $800.

The problem, magnet fishermen said, is that many more scooters remain hidden underwater. It’s impossible to pull out an invisible scooter, they said, because they aren’t especially magnetic.

Magnet fishermen generally focus on pulling out metal objects. They cast strong magnets, on the ends of strong ropes, into the water. Then they drag in what they catch. Spokane magnet fishermen have found all sorts of rusty treasure, including bathtubs, iron park benches and bulky pieces of railroad equipment.

Lime scooters are primarily plastic, though, and can only be snagged with grappling hooks. If the fishermen can’t see the scooter, they can’t hook it.

“There must be enormous numbers of Lime scooters in our river that we can’t see, that are buried by sediment or too deep,” said Jule Schultz, the Spokane Riverkeeper’s cleanup director.

Schultz and Sharp said only Lime knows how many scooters lie on the river bottom.

“They have GPS trackers, so they know when they hit the water,” Sharp said.

But Lime won’t say how many scooters are in the river.

“It’s not something we usually share,” Murphy said.

Murphy said Lime continually works to retrieve its scooters, even when they’re broken. He also noted that the newest generation of Lime scooters, launched this year, weigh in at 60 pounds. That makes them significantly heavier than the previous models and far more difficult to heave over a railing.

Magnet fishermen and representatives from the Spokane Riverkeeper mostly said they don’t want to vilify Lime. They say the problem is caused by vandals illegally throwing its property off bridges.

But they all said Lime and government agencies need to do a far better job protecting the river. The scooter pollution issue has been overlooked for years, they said.

“At what point should the industry be mandated to insulate our waterways from the impact – the potential negative impact – of these scooters?” Spokane Riverkeeper Executive Director Jerry White asked. “It shouldn’t be ignored and swept under the rug.”

Bursting into the limelight

Brad Bao and Toby Sun founded Lime six years ago and headquartered their new business in San Francisco.

Both came from venture capital backgrounds and appear to have a knack for fundraising. Lime has received hundreds of millions of dollars from massive investment firms and tech giants, including Uber and Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

All that money has fueled Lime’s explosive growth as it tries to take over the market. Lime scooters didn’t exist in early 2017; now they’re on street corners in 250 cities on five continents.

Lime isn’t publicly traded, so it’s difficult to pinpoint how much it’s worth, but analysts at different times have valued the company between $500 million and $2 billion.

In February, Lime said it was the first micromobility company to post a fully profitable year. It brought in $466 million from 120 million trips and, when accounting for interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, earned $15 million.

Despite those big numbers, Lime scooters are cheap for individual riders. In Spokane, it costs $1 to activate a scooter and 39 cents a minute to ride it. A 5-minute trip costs $2.95.

Lime has been a financial boon for Spokane City Hall. The company pays the city 75 cents per vehicle for every day a vehicle is out on the streets, plus a $17,000 annual fee. Spokane has received $530,000 from Lime since 2019, including $190,000 last year.

While Lime and its competitors bring cities extra revenue, electric scooters have caused local governments plenty of headaches.

In addition to pollution concerns, some city politicians have called scooters a nuisance and safety issue. Multiple cities have prohibited them.

This April, 89% of Parisians voted in favor of an electric scooter ban. France’s national academy of medicine has called them a public health threat because dozens of riders have died and many more have been injured.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find injury data on electric scooters in Spokane. No government agency or hospital at the state or local level was able to provide any scooter collision or injury statistics for this story.

Who’s in charge?

White and Schultz, who work for the nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the Spokane River, said they’ve tried to figure out which government agency is responsible for protecting the river from trash.

“When it comes to responsibility or funding, we couldn’t get to the bottom of it,” Schultz said.

According to Washington law, environmental protection of state rivers is the Department of Natural Resources’ job.

But Joe Smillie, the department’s communications director for aquatic lands, told The Spokesman-Review to talk to local law enforcement when asked for comment on Lime scooters in the Spokane River.

“I asked around and nobody here seems to have heard anything about the problem,” Smillie said in an email. He did not respond to multiple follow-up requests for comment.

Throwing a Lime scooter in the river is illegal, per Spokane law, but it’s unclear if the Spokane Police Department has cited anyone for doing it. Police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said public records staff didn’t have time to sift through the data to answer that question.

Going after Lime scooter vandals would be difficult, Humphreys said.

“No one’s throwing things in the river in broad daylight in front of officers,” she said. “There’s no evidence, there’s no witnesses.”

Murphy, Lime’s spokesman, said the company works with Spokane’s code enforcement department instead of the police.

When the city in late July learned that The Spokesman-Review was writing about scooters in the river, the code enforcement department alerted Lime. City planner Colin Quinn-Hurst said in an email that Lime, in response, planned to remove several scooters from under the Howard Street walking bridge.

Mabie said Lime last week met with Spokane’s magnet fishermen, who have recently pulled out four more scooters in Riverfront Park – numbers 254 through 257 on the club’s all-time tally.

City spokesman Brian Walker said Lime hopes to work more closely with local magnet fishermen in the future. Sharp said Lime has proposed paying the magnet fishing club an annual lump sum for scooter retrieval.

“They’re putting a Band-Aid on it,” he said. “They want to throw us $3,000 a year or something. To me, that really sounds ridiculous for the amount of work we put in this. A true recovery business, they would charge that in an afternoon, maybe.”

Murphy declined to say how much each scooter costs, but it’s likely Spokane magnet fishermen have saved Lime thousands of dollars by returning 257 scooters.

It’s unclear what legal obligation Lime has to retrieve its property, but the Washington State Department of Ecology is charged by state law to clean up chemical spills in waterways. That means if an oil tank truck or Tesla crashed into the Spokane River, Ecology would lead the effort to get it out.

The Department of Ecology said it was unaware Lime scooters are in the river.

“We haven’t been called on one yet, very surprisingly, and I’ve been at this for several years – since Lime has been in Spokane,” said Sean Thompson, a hazardous materials specialist for the Department of Ecology.

Thompson said if someone told Ecology about a scooter in the river, the agency would try to remove it.

Failed experiment?

Spokane residents have a history of destroying new and convenient forms of transportation.

Paul Lindholdt, an Eastern Washington University philosophy and English professor who edited and co-wrote “The Spokane River,” said the Lime situation reminds him of the city’s short-lived lilac bike experiment in the late 1990s.

“At that time the city was freely providing bicycles,” Lindholdt wrote in an email. “They were painted purple to match the theme of the Lilac City.”

The 50 bikes didn’t last long.

“The infamous lilac bikes of Spokane were, infamously, thrown into the Spokane River in 1997,” The Spokesman-Review wrote in 2018, shortly before Lime’s local debut. “Fingers crossed the electric Lime bikes and scooters that will appear in Spokane this summer don’t face the same watery fate.”

Schultz said people have been mistreating the Spokane River for more than a century.

“Our river used to be the town dump,” he said.

The Spokane River contains enormous quantities of trash. In 2015, divers spent a week pulling out garbage between Division Street and Hamilton Street. They loaded up two barges worth of trash every day.

This year alone, the Spokane Riverkeeper has removed 23,000 pounds of trash. Schultz estimated 1,000 pounds of that was Lime scooters.

“Seeing trash in the river, it really touches my very core,” he said. “There’s something inside me that gets, maybe, irrationally angry.”

Sharp said he’s tired of pulling out Lime scooters over and over. It’s different from magnet fishing, where there’s excitement with every cast into the water and a constant possibility of discovery.

“That’s all we’ve been doing is Lime scooters,” Sharp said. “In a way it kind of took the fun out of it last year because we kind of stopped doing all the magnet fishing.”

If people can’t be mature enough to stop throwing Lime scooters in the river, maybe Spokane can’t handle the responsibility of having them, White said.

“If you can’t keep them out of the river and out of surface waters everywhere across the Earth, sorry,” he said, “failed experiment, and that’s that.”

Lime scooters keep ending up in the Spokane River. But despite potentially harmful batteries, agencies don't know who should pull them out (2024)
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