Are Portland food cart propane tanks safe?

Are Portland food cart propane tanks safe?

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's meatball day at The Italian Market in S.E. Portland.  That means co-owner Andrew Vidulich will have to make sure 400 meatballs are ready to go at this food cart, which uses propane.

He is from the Philadelphia area, and saw the video of the food truck propane explosion in that city.

"Pretty scary," said Vidulich. "Makes me wonder if we're doing everything we can to make sure we're safe here. Maybe I'll be calling the fire marshal to make sure we have everything where it should be."

Portland Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Marshal Doug Jones said food cart owners have to apply for and receive a propane tank permit every year. He said they receive information at that time about how to use propane tanks safely, for example, keeping the tanks on the outside of the cart, not on the inside.

He said if a tank is inside and it leaks, the propane could stay inside the cart and get into people's clothes. Cooking could then ignite the gas and cause an explosion.

"The food cart's going to come apart. But also it's going to ignite all the propane that's permeated the clothing of the individuals. And survival in that type of situation, the odds aren't good," said Jones.

Jones also said propane tanks should be secured on carts, because a tank that tips over and knocks off its valve could effectively become a missile as the gas shoots out.

Plus, he said cart owners---and anyone who uses propane tanks for barbecues---should check regularly for leaks, putting liquid soap on possible leak areas and watching for bubbles, the sign of a leak.

Jones said his staff will do spot checks on propane tanks and other issues at food carts, but they do not have enough people to check on every propane tank at every food cart every year.

He said they rely on cart owners to monitor their own safety, and have not had problems with propane fires or explosions at food carts in recent history.

"That's the primary way that we're reaching out to people on propane safety, is education," said Jones.

You will see hundreds of food carts in Portland, but fewer actual food trucks, on wheels, like the truck that exploded in Philadelphia.

Jones said there appears to be a grey area with propane tanks on food trucks, in that they are not regulated in the same way as propane tanks on food carts. He said the fire marshal's office does not provide permits for or do spot checks on them, because food trucks are road vehicles.

The Problem Solvers checked with the Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation, and both said they did not regulate food truck propane tanks.

"Street-side food vending trucks are exempt from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations if the gross weight of the propane cylinder is less than 220 pounds, up to a total gross weight limit of 440 pounds per vehicle," said Duane DeBruyne with the Department of Transportation.

Jones said people in the Portland area are much more likely to be hurt with propane from a backyard barbecue grill than from a food cart or truck propane tank problem.

Vidulich said the explosion in Philadelphia, though scary, should not keep people away from food carts.  

"Having a cart's great and it's great for cities and communities," said Vidulich. "Hope this doesn't set it back, and people are afraid of them in their neighborhood or nervous to open one themselves," said Vidulich.