Food truck explosions raise concerns about safety rules

The ex­plo­sion of a pro­pane tank on the back of a Phil­a­del­phia food truck that in­jured 12 peo­ple ear­lier this week might high­light a gap in safety in­spec­tions of some food trucks, which are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity across the coun­try, in­clud­ing in Pitts­burgh.

On Tues­day night, one of two pro­pane tanks in the back of La Par­ril­lada Chapina, a li­censed food truck parked in the Fel­ton­ville neigh­bor­hood of Phil­a­del­phia, ex­ploded in a fire­ball. Five of the in­jured were still in crit­i­cal con­di­tion Wed­nes­day night. At the time of the ex­plo­sion, the truck’‍s owner, Olga Gal­de­mez, 42; her daugh­ter Jay­lin Lan­dav­erry, 18; and two rel­a­tives, ages 13 and 27; were work­ing in­side.

Phil­a­del­phia po­lice said Wed­nes­day that grills on the Guate­malan food truck ig­nited pro­pane va­por leak­ing from an un­used tank.

It’s just the lat­est ex­plo­sion that has oc­curred in food trucks across North Amer­ica, ac­cord­ing to the Phil­a­del­phia In­quirer. In 2011, the pro­pane tank on a New York City food truck ex­ploded af­ter a car ac­ci­dent, burn­ing two work­ers.

In 2012, a pro­pane tank ex­ploded on a food truck at the Ca­na­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion, caus­ing $30,000 in dam­age. Three peo­ple were in­jured when a food truck ex­ploded last year at a high school foot­ball game in Fresno, Calif.

A 2012 New York City fire de­part­ment study on food trucks found sev­eral com­mon fire haz­ards that could cause ex­plo­sions, in­clud­ing the pres­ence of mul­ti­ple pro­pane cyl­in­ders, hot fryer oil and grills, com­pressed gas­ses, high volt­age elec­tric­ity and bio haz­ards from un­safe san­i­tary con­di­tions.

Lo­cally, it is un­clear who in­spects food trucks for safety in their pro­pane use.

Al­le­gheny County cur­rently has 289 li­censed mo­bile food ven­dors, ac­cord­ing to Guillermo Cole, county health de­part­ment spokes­man. They each go through a va­ri­ety of food safety and san­i­ta­tion in­spec­tions.

“The health de­part­ment is con­cerned with food safety and san­i­ta­tion re­gard­ing food trucks and has no role in gen­eral safety over­sight,” he wrote in an email.

The trucks also un­dergo a yearly ve­hi­cle in­spec­tion re­quired by the state Depart­ment of Trans­por­ta­tion, but Rich Kirk­patrick, a PennDOT spokes­man, said, “The in­spec­tion looks at the safety of the ve­hi­cle it­self, but not any­thing sup­ple­men­tal like the ad­di­tion of a pro­pane tank.”

The Pitts­burgh Pub­lic Safety Depart­ment also does not in­spect pro­pane tanks, ac­cord­ing to Sonya Toler, pub­lic safety spokes­woman. She said the state ex­cluded pro­pane reg­u­la­tion from lo­cal con­trol in the Pro­pane Liq­ue­fied Pe­tro­leum Gas Act. She said the state reg­u­lates pro­pane un­der its La­bor and In­dus­try Depart­ment. No one could be reached in that de­part­ment Wed­nes­day night.

Sev­eral food ven­dors, how­ever, said Wed­nes­day that the pro­pane tanks on their trucks had not been in­spected by any agency. They em­pha­sized, how­ever, that they fol­low safe prac­tices to en­sure prob­lems do not arise.

Matt Hug­gins, man­ager and op­er­a­tor of the BRGR food truck, said, “The un­der-the-hood sys­tem and the an­sul fire sup­pres­sion sys­tem are reg­u­lated but as to the tank it­self, no, but the plumb­ing and gas lines get looked at.”

Wal­ter Augerie, owner of L.A. Taco truck, based in Kit­tan­ning, Arm­strong County, also said that when their truck gets in­spected no one di­rectly looks at the pro­pane tank.

“I saw what hap­pened in Phil­a­del­phia and it is a very un­for­tu­nate and sad,” Mr. Augerie said. “We have signs all over our truck re­mind­ing peo­ple to make sure the knobs are off. You have to de­velop those stan­dard pro­ce­dures for your­self.”

Pro­pane tanks, when prop­erly mon­i­tored and in­spected, are not dan­ger­ous, in­dus­try of­fi­cials said.

“There are about 60 mil­lion grills that use pro­pane in this coun­try, but the num­ber of in­ci­dents is fairly di­min­u­tive,” said Stu­art Fla­tow, vice pres­i­dent for safety and train­ing with the Pro­pane Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search Coun­cil. “I hope peo­ple won’t have a knee-jerk re­ac­tion.”

His state­ment was echoed by Mr. Hug­gins at BRGR. “Like any­thing else there can be haz­ards, but done prop­erly with safety and know-how, it’s not an is­sue.”

Camp­bell North: cnorth@post-ga­ or 412-263-1613.

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