Burned into memory

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

Bob Brightwell is reluctant to talk about it, and he damn sure doesn't want to be photographed. Not with the skin grafts that discolor his forehead and temple. Not with the scars that disfigure his arms and hands. Not with the memory of the fiery crash more than 19 months ago forever burned into his mind.

His hands got the worst of it. He used them to fend off the explosion, to protect his eyes from the ball of flames that burst in his face. His fingers still ache with a hot, scorching sensation, as though their nerve endings can recall the last moment before they were charred like meat.

That moment saw Brightwell, a Dallas County security guard stopped at an intersection on Fort Worth Avenue, working the midnight shift, patrolling various county buildings in Oak Cliff. He was driving a 1992 Chevy Blazer, part of the county's fleet of bi-fuel vehicles--those converted to run on either gasoline or compressed natural gas (CNG). Using CNG-converted vehicles was the county's way of cleaning the air and pleasing the Environmental Protection Agency at the same time.

But Brightwell wasn't thinking about ground-level ozone or low-emission vehicles or the fact that Dallas-Fort Worth was now classified as a "serious non-attainment" area by the EPA when a Lincoln Towncar broadsided him on November 22, 1998. He didn't know that the drunk driver who had left him for dead would himself be found dead within minutes of the accident, having fled on foot from the crash scene only to be accosted, robbed, and murdered by three thugs attracted to his cell phone. He doesn't remember the huge billow of fire that lit up the evening sky and destroyed most of his car and some of him.

"So much of it is foggy," he says.

Brightwell does recall a lot of "yelling and screaming" in Parkland hospital, where he was taken after he suffered third- and fourth-degree burns on 15 to 20 percent of his body. What he doesn't recall is whether those sounds were coming from him.

As a result of the accident, Brightwell first sued Dallas County in January 1999, and then in April of this year he sued Impco Technologies, the California-based manufacturer of the CNG conversion unit, as well as its local distributor, Transtar Technologies. Brightwell contends that Impco defectively designed the CNG conversion unit and that the county improperly installed it. Brightwell dismissed the case against the county once the lawsuit against the manufacturer was filed. Although Brightwell's attorney, Jay English, says the county is aware of the allegations of design defects, 74 vehicles that have been adapted to use CNG with Impco conversion kits remain in county service.

"Our security vehicles are all outfitted with CNG and all of the officers are protesting," Brightwell claims. "They say, 'We only use gasoline and not CNG, because we don't want to look like Brightwell.'"


Amid ozone action days that have become common occurrences, global worries over the greenhouse effect, and fears that federal highway funds might be lost if the mandates of the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act weren't met, Dallas County, as well as other government entities around the country, entered the business of converting their fleets of vehicles to run on alternative fuels. Although these include propane, ethanol, methanol, and electricity, it seemed only natural for the county to turn to natural gas, since two-thirds of the U.S. reserves can be found in Texas and it burns cleaner (produces fewer pollutants) and cheaper (from 49 to 85 cents a gallon) than gasoline.

Big car manufacturers such as Ford and Chevrolet began making alternative-fuel vehicles in 1995. Before that, cars, trucks, and vans had to be adapted for alternative fuel use after they were purchased from the factory. So in 1991, when the county first began to use CNG in its vehicles, it purchased conversion kits manufactured by Impco Technologies and continued to do so until 1994. Conversions added between $2,000 and $4,000 to the cost of a vehicle, which would then run on CNG or gasoline with the simple flip of a switch.

Since so few drivers have made the switch to alternative fuels (there are only 6,000 vehicles powered by alternative fuels in the metroplex), there is no hard evidence linking their use to a reduction in ozone levels. "There are more than 5 million cars in Texas," says Nan Miller, coordinator of the Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities Program sponsored by the North Texas Council of Governments. "It is hard to say what kind of contribution alternative fuels represent." Yet federal regulators insist that by the year 2002, all government entities that maintain fleets of more than 15 vehicles must purchase 80 percent of their new vehicles with alternative fuel packages. However, this is only one piece of the plan to reduce air pollution to acceptable levels by 2007. If the Dallas-Fort Worth area doesn't attain this goal, it will not only risk the loss of federal highway money but will also face possible federal sanctions on economic development.

Yet there is a reluctance, at least on the part of some government employees, to use alternative-fuel vehicles. Although the more recent factory models have seen drastic improvements in their performance, a habitual gripe against them is that they lack the power of their gasoline counterparts. That's why federal mandates have never applied to emergency vehicles. And CNG vehicles don't have the range of gasoline engines, since one tank of gas only averages 70-90 miles, says Dick Wakeman, fleet service manager for Dallas County. "Range is a big drawback. But car manufacturers are now coming out with extended-range vehicles that can go in the 200-mile range. That makes them more practical."

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."

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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