GILBERT, AZ - “It didn’t even look like him,” Tammy Curtis Yohe said, remembering the moment she first saw the man she loves in a hospital bed.
“He was fully masked and in dressings and very, very, very swollen,” Yohe said.
Hours before, Jason Nelson was working in his garage when he went to light a cigarette. The spark from his lighter ignited a fireball that burned him over 80 percent of his body .
“I never, never thought this man wouldn’t make it,” Yohe said. “It never occurred to me.”
Investigators ruled the cause of the accident was likely two cracked pipes leaking natural gas near Nelson’s home. The pipes were operated by Southwest Gas.
The Arizona Corporation Commission, the state agency that regulates pipe safety, investigated the incident and found the pipes had degraded underground, likely causing the leaks.
But, the ABC15 Investigators found this wasn’t the first time the Corporation Commission or Southwest Gas has seen problems with this brand of pipe, Driscopipe M8000.
A DECADE OF DOCUMENTATION
“This is something that we’ve been gathering information on for quite some time,” according to Robert Miller, Director of the Corporation Commission’s Pipeline Safety Division.
Miller’s office led the commission’s investigation and found Southwest Gas had no fault in the explosion . But, he also said the commission has been studying issues with Driscopipe M8000 for nearly a decade.
There are about 6,000 miles of this kind of pipe in the Valley and 11,000 miles of it across Arizona.
In 2005, Southwest Gas first brought the issue to the Corporation Commission’s attention.
“We noticed that there’s something that’s going on with this pipe that looks a little bit different,” said Amy Washburn, spokesperson for Southwest Gas. “In some instances, it’s completely aesthetic; it’s on the outside of the pipe, it looks a little different, perhaps some of the material is flaking off. However, its functionality is perfectly intact.”
But, she said there have also been some other instances in which the pipes have degraded and it’s resulted in a leak.
The ABC15 Investigators found, there have been 72 instances of degraded Driscopipe M8000 documented in the desert Southwest since 2007. Most of them have been right here in Arizona.
According to Corporation Commission reports, there have been 36 cases of degraded pipe that resulted in slit cracks, like those found outside Jason Nelson’s home in Gilbert.
The reports also show this wasn’t the first time leaks in this type of pipe have led to fires.
In Phoenix in 2007, flames flared up outside a strip mall after a leak. And, in 2008, leaked gas ignited in a Yuma family’s garage, starting a fire that caused extensive damage to their home and destroyed their car.
NO FULL-SCALE REPLACEMENT
“Once we identified that something was going on, we went forward and we started to look into what is happening, to get to the root of it,” Washburn said.
The ABC15 Investigators found, in multiple reports, the likely root of the problem is the heat of the desert Southwest.
Two years before Jason Nelson’s garage exploded in Gilbert, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an advisory warning that Driscopipe M8000 can degrade.
Every case they found took place in the hot climates of the desert Southwest.
Later, the pipe’s manufacturer, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, issued two reports of its own, identifying increased pipe temperature as a big factor in the degradation process.
The ABC15 Investigators reached out to the company for comment on the issues with Driscopipe M8000, but never received a response.
But, nearly a decade after they first noticed the issues, and after Jason Nelson nearly burned to death in Gilbert, neither Southwest Gas nor the Corporation Commission think Driscopipe M8000 needs to be replaced in the desert.
Both told ABC15 Driscopipe M8000 has one of the lowest leak rates of any pipe in use. Overall, Southwest Gas has a leak rate of 0.065 leaks per mile. The leak rate for all natural gas distribution systems nationwide is 0.224 leaks per mile.
“Pipe replacement, it’s a large scope,” Washburn, with Southwest Gas, said. “Because the leak rate has been so low, it just doesn’t warrant going in and replacing that type of mileage of pipe within one area.”
Miller said he wants to make sure the issue isn’t getting worse. But, he thinks it’s too soon to tell if Driscopipe M8000 should be replaced.
“We don’t know if what we’re looking at is the beginning of something, the middle of something or the end of something,” he said. “If it’s the tip of the iceberg, we want to address it quickly and we want to address it aggressively.”
While Southwest Gas has ruled out a full-scale pipe replacement at this time, it has increased its inspections of Driscopipe M8000.
Federal law requires all pipe be inspected every five years. Southwest Gas inspects all of its pipes every three years.
The company inspects Driscopipe M8000 at least once a year. If they see signs of degradation, inspections increase again.
The pipe that leaked
on Nelson’s street was last inspected in December, 2011, according to Southwest Gas.
Driscopipe M8000 was last installed anywhere in 1999.
A LONG RECOVERY
But, whatever action may be taken, it’s too late for Yohe.
For the past few months, she’s watched Nelson undergo 21 surgeries and be placed in and out of induced comas. She knows this is just the beginning of a very painful recovery process.
“Yeah, I’m angry. I’m angry that this happened to him, of course,” she said.
She said she asks herself many questions. “When is it going to be over? When is he going to stop experiencing pain? When is his spirit going to be back? When is he going to be Jason again?”
If you want to donate to Jason Nelson’s medical bills and other costs, go to http://www.gofundme.com/JasonNelson .