Fowler Associates Labs



Static Fire Stories Articles & Technical Papers Current News

Safety and Trial Lawyers:

The Forgotten Issues in 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA)

by Mike Colburn

ESD Journal Note: We have stated that one of the issues of concern with the increase in static ignited auto refueling fires is the changes in gasoline mixtures.  Mike Colburn discusses these issues.

Since the implementation of the 1990 CAA started in widespread use in 1995 we have seen the following listed problems and one significantly forgotten problem:


1)      Oxygenate Wars; The battle between the American oil industry and the American farmer AKA The Ethanol industry. MTBE and Ethanol issues are using up our legislators valuable time arguing over who can clean the air and stretch our energy supply.


2)      The Ethanol Industry claims that MTBE has seriously damaged our underground water tables. The Oil Industry claims that ethanol will significantly increase the cost of gasoline at the pump. Arguments and accusations are abundant on both sides, politicians are in the middle and the public is confused.


3)      While everyone is claiming to be concerned about our Air and Water Quality, it is becoming more and more obvious that this is about Money and Power and has nothing to do with environmental issues.


4)      The forgotten issue in this whole argument has been safety. While water quality and air quality are very important, there is a little talked about phenomenon going on across this country and it has been increasing significantly since 1995. Refueling fires, when motorists refuel their vehicles they are getting burned and or killed. This is not to mention the property damage to the gas stations or vehicles. The Petroleum Equipment Institute The American Petroleum Institute and Fowler and Associates  all have been investigating these incidents. They have correctly pointed out one cause in that occurs in the Fall, Winter and Spring, that is when the consumer pulls into the gas station on a cold dry day, the customer gets out of their vehicle goes to the pump inserts the nozzle and locks it in on automatic. The customer because it’s cold goes back and gets in their nice warm and cozy vehicle not realizing that the carpets, seats and other components in their vehicles are made from insulting products that when contacted charge up their person. When they hear the automatic nozzle shut off engage, they then get out of the vehicle and not realizing that a vapor cloud made from (VOC’s, AKA Volatile Organic compounds) has developed around the nozzle and the filler opening of the vehicle as they reach thru this vapor cloud their body discharges the accumulated voltage via a spark and presto we have a flash flame, these incidents have resulted in significant injury, death and property damage. I keep wondering how catastrophic this has to get before we can get more attention focused on this problem? What could happen if an incident like this occurs when a gasoline tanker truck is dropping a load to the gas station? There are other possible reasons for these incidents, I will list them below;


5)      To create a fire or explosion you need three things

A)    a Fuel Source

B)     Air/Oxygen  

C)    Spark.


We need to examine these sources and how to eliminate one or more of these sources and eliminate the problem.


6)      Fuel: Motor Gasoline Refiners are regulated by US EPA , CARB and other various state agencies. This was mandated by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. They blend their fuels for season-to-season use and attainment vs non-attainment areas. During the summer one major control of the fuel is RVP, in summer fuel the RVP is capped. This keeps VOC’s (Volatile organic Compounds, vapor) to a minimum. Along with reducing smog this also improves safety when refueling the vehicle. In March 1988 the “Center for Automotive Safety”(CAS) published a well documented report called:  “Stopping Vehicle Fires & Reducing Evaporative Emissions: THE NEED TO CONTROL GASOLINE & ALCOHOL BLEND VOLATILITY”.  This document reports on many of the problems created by gasoline & alcohol blended fuels. In short it notes that in the late 1970’s and up to 1988 (When the document was published) that gasoline & alcohol blended fuels were responsible many injuries and deaths caused by gasoline & alcohol blended fuels. It also notes many problems created in automotive fuel systems by these same gasoline & alcohol blended fuels. It called for reducing RVP of summer time blended fuel. In those years summertime fuel RVP varied between 9 and 11.5 pounds. I am sure the information in this document was used when the CAA of 1990 was created. It is interesting to note that when refiners raise the RVP of fuel they increase it by adding these very profitable pentanes and butanes. Today these products improve the cold start and wintertime performance of fall, winter and spring gasoline blends. When ethanol is added to these fuels the resultant RVP is even higher, thus increasing escaping VOC’s (Increasing the refueling hazards, fuel source) when vehicles are being refueled in those cooler seasons. Wintertime fuel RVP varies between 9 pounds and 15 pounds depending the particular area. It does not appear that there is a solid cap on RVP other than summertime season. Reducing and capping wintertime RVP could significantly reduce escaping VOC’s; this action would reduce the hazards of refueling a vehicle in off summer seasons as well as improving the environment. PROBLEM: It has been said the problem with this possible solution is that this is when the refiners sell their very profitable pentanes and butanes. It is also worth noting that certain areas use ethanol for the same purposes, this also needs to be addressed.


7)      Cold air is denser in the fall, winter and spring. It is not possible to eliminate this component from the fire and explosion equation. It does need to be noted here though that Vapor Recovery Systems while a good idea are not the panacea/answer one might think they are.


8)      Spark Source: It is interesting to note that in the 1980’s congress mandated CAFÉ Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards/regulations on the Automotive Manufacturers. It is not often pointed out, but the automotive industry has done absolutely heroic work in this area. They have complied in virtually all areas. This has been good for America on all levels. The technological strides made by the automotive industry have brought a certain set of problems though; with the advent of modern day engine management came better fuel economy, better performance and better air quality. Part of these gains came from weight reductions in all areas. This was done through the use of composites, plastics and light metal components in many areas of the vehicle. This was done in the construction of automotive interiors where the use of insulating products used in the manufacture of seats, carpets and other components that improve the quality of today’s cars. This is especially true with the fuel supply and delivery systems as well. Today’s modern fuel system ie; Fuel Injection requires higher fuel pressures and fuel volumes. It is an interesting note that in the recent cases of reported refueling fires there are no incidents reported in vehicles older than mid to late 1980’s vintage. It is also interesting to note that the automotive industry is not recognized as a stakeholder in the issue of fuel formulations. It is also interesting to note that US EPA requires the automotive industry to certify their products with “Indolene” a test fuel. This fuel is not formulated with oxygenates (except in California) where California requires it’s own testing of Detroit manufactured vehicles to make sure they comply with California standards and regulations. One point further with the advent of the CAA of 1990 and a point very worthy of noting. The vehicles that automotive industry certifies with “Indolene” are then shipped out and sold to the American consumer who uses one of a reported 90 different boutique fuels to fuel their vehicles. This is where the problems begin. There are many available reports with respect to how ethanol blended fuels permeate and reduce the effectiveness of components in today’s modern day fuel supply and delivery systems. What may be missing here is a cooperative effort between Detroit and US EPA with respect to fuel formulation and it’s effects on modern day fuel systems. In today’s very sophisticated fuel system it may be that one component rendered ineffective by ethanol E-10 or another type fuel could have catastrophic consequences to the owner/user of the vehicle? See Refueling fire reports. Also refer to Center for Automotive Safety Report referred to early in this paper. They report on many damaged fuel system components.


9)      Over all problems, It seems that the only one’s benefiting from these safety problems are the Trial Lawyers. The Automotive Industry and the Oil Industry have been lacking in their efforts to address the safety issues represented here. This may be because they have found working with US EPA over the past 8 to 10 years has been an effort in futility. Questions need to be asked here.


10)  Possible Solutions: A cooperative joint effort be created between all the stakeholders automotive industry, Oil Industry, US EPA, DOE, DOT and all other stakeholders to reform the CAA of 1990 using science and common sense. A set of solutions developed here could benefit all Americans in the following ways.

A)    Safer Fuel

B)     A cleaner environment.

C)    Better fuel economy.

D)    Lower energy costs.

E)     Better profits for the energy producers.

F)     Politicians spending more time working on things that really matter.

G)    Better vehicle technologies and profits for Detroit.

H)    Fewer Trial Lawyers.

I)       A larger more efficient and abundant supply of energy.

J)       More Freedom for all Americans.


This is absolutely doable.  


Mike may be reached at:  "Mike Colburn" <>

The ESD Journal is not affiliated with any trade organization, Association or Society

ESD Journal & are Trademarks of Fowler Associates, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

The content & Look of the ESD Journal & are Copyrighted by Fowler Associates, Inc. - All Rights Reserved Copyright 2011

The YouTube name and logo are copyright of YouTube, LLC.