Did propane blast reveal gap in regulations?

The Feltonville food truck, near Wyoming and Third, erupted about 5:30 p.m.
The Feltonville food truck, near Wyoming and Third, erupted about 5:30 p.m. (C.F. SANCHEZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 04, 2014

Who regularly inspects food-truck propane tanks like the one that blew up Tuesday in Philadelphia's Feltonville section, injuring 10 people?

Apparently, no one does.

City health inspectors go over the trucks' food preparation areas in detail. State officials make sure the trucks are roadworthy. Federal inspectors scrutinize bigger propane tanks.

But officials at city, state, and federal safety agencies said regular inspection of propane tanks like the one that exploded Tuesday was not their responsibility.

La Parrillada Chapina, the family-run food truck that blew up, was last inspected in April and had three valid licenses to operate in the city. Yet none of those inspections looked at what could be the most dangerous part of such trucks.

Since 2012, the Department of Licenses and Inspections had issued a commercial activity license, a food license, and a vending license, the last two which are annually renewed, to Olga Galdamez, the owner of La Parrillada Chapina, who was critically injured in the explosion.

But L&I inspectors don't set foot inside food trucks to issue any of those licenses. The agency relies on the Health Department's annual food-facility inspections to grant food licenses, Commissioner Carlton Williams said Wednesday.

L&I "has no jurisdiction or regulatory authority over motor vehicles, propane, or propane tanks," he said in an e-mail. "These are all functions that must be inspected by the state and federal government."

Yet representatives of the state Department of Labor and Industry, state Department of Transportation, and U.S. Department of Labor said they also do not have jurisdiction to inspect the tanks.

Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which works to reduce injuries and fatalities involving buses and large trucks, said street-side food trucks are exempt from federal regulations concerning propane if the tanks are under 220 pounds, or 440 pounds per vehicle. La Parrillada had two 100-pound propane tanks, according to police.

If larger tanks were used, the truck would have been subject to federal regulations involving training, proper signage, and safety inspections, DeBruyne said.

Joanna P. Hawkins, a deputy regional director for the U.S. Department of Labor, said ultimately, employers are responsible for monitoring the condition of any equipment utilized at work sites.

She also said in an e-mail: "Since L&I handles the licensure and permits for food trucks, suggest you contact them to ask what that entails, including which division has oversight of propane tank regulation."

Food trucks must meet state vehicle and equipment standards, said Richard Kirkpatrick, acting press secretary for PennDot. According to PennDot regulations and state law, he said, the trucks are inspected yearly at state-approved private inspection stations for such road-related items as brakes, lights, and tire tread.

"Such an inspection," Kirkpatrick said, "would not be looking at the condition of a propane tank used in a business operated from the vehicle."

Josh Kim, who runs the Spot Gourmet Burgers mobile food trailer, said he has had city health inspectors ask to see his truck's propane tank. But he said it was not standard practice.

Vendors turn in a blueprint of their food trucks to obtain licenses, and face health inspections yearly, Kim said. But there usually is no check of gas tanks or lines. He said he and other vendors who belong to the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association have discussed whether there should be formal checks.

"Food trucks are giant gas grills on wheels," Kim said Wednesday.

He said some owners will refill their tanks instead of replacing them to save a few bucks. "Propane tanks have a shelf life," Kim said, adding that he has seen some trucks with rusted or corroded tanks. He stressed that he did not know the condition of La Parrillada's tanks.

The Fire Department checks propane tanks if someone complains, or if, during an unrelated fire call, firefighters notice one out of place. Those checks are typically at homes and not food trucks, Executive Fire Chief Peter Crespo said.

"We wouldn't mind doing it, but there's no policy for it," Crespo said of inspecting propane tanks on food trucks.

For his part, Williams suggested in his e-mail that Tuesday's propane-tank explosion might prompt some rethinking.

The L&I commissioner said his agency "will meet with the state agencies to determine what can be done to provide increased oversight and enforcement to prevent tragedies in the future."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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