Burned into memory

A county employee questions the safety of vehicles powered by compressed natural gas

Are vehicles powered by propane and natural gas somehow less safe, more likely to explode on impact? Nan Miller says no. "In many ways they are less dangerous than gasoline cars. The tanks meet higher safety standards than what our gasoline tanks meet. And CNG is not a liquid. It can't spill out on the ground; it can't catch fire and explode."

Jay English might take issue with this. "Compressed natural gas is under a great deal of pressure. In Mr. Brightwell's case, the accident punctured the CNG line in a place where there were sparks handy, and the thing acted like a flame-thrower...My client is lucky to be alive."

English also contends that if the conversion kit manufactured by Impco had been designed with a cut-off valve that would have somehow activated on impact, the injuries to his client would have never occurred. "In this system, there should have been a switch or valve that would have stopped the flow of CNG out of the tank in the event of a dramatic decrease in downstream pressure. The experts I have spoken to are stunned that there is no requirement for this type of switch already."

Bob Brightwell, a Dallas County employee who was severely burned in an accident, faults the manufacturer of the vehicle's CNG conversion unit.
Bob Brightwell, a Dallas County employee who was severely burned in an accident, faults the manufacturer of the vehicle's CNG conversion unit.

Wakeman admits that in the early '90s, when the county was installing Impco conversions, the kit had no cut-off valve to prevent fuel from leaving the tank upon impact. "Now in all factory-manufactured alternative-fuel vehicles, there is a cut-off valve if you get hit," he says. However, he has no problem that 74 of the county's CNG vehicles--all Impco conversions--still lack this cutoff valve. "I would not feel comfortable sitting in my chair and putting people on the road if there was a safety issue. We would have accidents. We would have loss of life. What happened to Brightwell was a freak deal. A gas line in the same kind of accident would have ruptured. You can't fault CNG."

Attorney English admits he is unaware of any other lawsuits in the country in which a CNG vehicle was involved in an accident. But he is still searching.

Transtar, a subsidiary of TXU Electric and Gas, claims that it merely sold the Impco conversion kit to the county and that neither the company nor its parent, TXU, had any contact with the vehicle driven by Brightwell. "We never touched the car," says TXU spokesperson Rand LaVonn. "We didn't make the part, we didn't install it, and frankly, we don't know what we are doing in this lawsuit."

Impco has yet to answer the lawsuit, and its general counsel, Don Dominique, claims he has no knowledge of it.

While Brightwell's case has been working its way through the legal system, he has made a remarkable recovery. After the accident, he lingered in serious condition in the hospital for six weeks, underwent three skin grafts, and suffered 13 months of agonizing burn therapy. Finally, in January, he returned to work. But, company man that he is, he won't speak harshly of Dallas County or the fact that his job still requires him to drive a bi-fuel vehicle that he considers a deathtrap. "That's why I only fill up with gasoline," he says.

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