Portable pollution

The dirty generators powering a rapidly expanding number of mobile food trucks escape the attention of air quality regulators

Food trucks gather at SOMA Streatfood and other spots, sometimes running dirty generators for hours.


With its decidedly hip aesthetic and clientele, San Francisco's food truck trend may be naturally assumed to be environmentally sound and health conscious. But the rapidly expanding craze may actually be creating air pollution and endangering the health of their employees in ways that aren't yet being regulated.

Although the mobile eateries are held to a few of the same standards as their brick and mortar counterparts, such as food hygiene and sanitation, the gas-powered portable generators that provide needed energy to the trucks are a tricky beast to tame. The exhaust-heavy portable generators do not fall under the San Francisco Department of Public Health's radar of regulation, according to its Food Safety Program Director Richard Lee.

"There are combustion products from the generators being generated while the truck is parked and operating," he told the Guardian. "The generators are needed to power lights, fans, refrigerators, etcetera. SFDPH does not monitor or regulate the generators."

The lack of monitoring on the generators may not be due to a lack of need for regulation, but rather the difficulty in doing so. Given that most of the generators are used to power relatively small vehicles, their small size inhibits them from meriting the attention of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) after their initial manufacture.

A CARB-compliant generator has met with the organization's restrictions on various organic gases, nitrogen oxides, sulfuric oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter. However, the generators are only monitored at the point of manufacture, with their in-use emissions going unregulated.

Furthermore, Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesperson Aaron Richardson tells us that despite the BAAQMD's 28 air monitor stations, the localization of the fad and the trucks themselves would make it difficult to see the effects of the generators as a regional issue.

"The concern would be they may not all operate in the same ways," he said. "I think that if the trucks...are running back up generators, it's going to emit some pollution. It's something I think we will be doing more research on, but at this point it's not looking like it's a dramatic impact on air quality. CARB regulates all mobile sources, and lot of these trucks use individual generators. At this point, we only regulate back up diesel generators...of 50 horse power or above."

So BAAQMD doesn't regulate the generators because they're gas-powered, and they don't trigger CARB's post-production attention, despite that agency's current efforts to reduce the state's carbon footprint.

CARB spokesperson John Swanton explained that given the small size and localization of the generators, it's up to the individual communities to decide how to approach the situation.

"It's up to the community to decide if they can bear the expense of a highly regulated community. In the terms of restaurants — which is what food trucks are — what are the community's standards and regulations?" he said. "When we sell, say, a Honda generator, we have ideas of how that's going to be used...We try to make it as clean as practically possible, but the idea is that it's not gonna run 24/7 at the same location. If it's going into a food truck and the food truck is going into a particular district, then it becomes the decision of the city and the air quality management [district]."

It seems, then, that no one is really regulating the exhaust emissions coming from the hordes of trucks that travel up Haight, down Market, into Fort Mason, and sit in clusters downtown, in SoMa, around City Hall, and other spots around town.

But at least they aren't dirty diesel fuel, right? Perhaps the BAAQMD and the city of San Francisco have no need to regulate the teensy-eensy bit of gasoline generator exhaust.


Ridiculous. What about the excessive carbon dioxide exhaled by the people standing in line?

SF leads the world in excessive handwringing over the minutiae that everyone else realizes doesnt matter in the big picture.

How many food trucks are in SF on a particular day? 50?

100? 100 generators is going to cause the polar icecaps to melt more quickly?

give. me. a. break.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 9:35 am

There should be a flow chart we can all follow to keep track.

Making money is bad go to 1; if not making money goto 9

1. If the persons in general are white goto 2; if not go to 3

2. Since they are white there needs to be more laws and higher taxes goto 4

3. Everything is good, if there are illegal immigrants involved they are too many repressive laws already. Why does the eveil government have to be so authoritarian? goto 5

4. If it involves motor vehicles or unPC profit goto 6; if not go to 7

5. Fight the man, stop this unjust persecution, goto 8

6. Since it involves motor vehicles or plastic bags tax and regulate them out of business.

7. Let them stay open but remember there is a uptight busy body progressive up there asses at all times.

8. Riot and shut down BART!

9. Have John Avalos lobby to make them a non profit and give them tax payer money, if that doesn't work go to 8

Posted by matlock on Sep. 01, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

Granted most of the generators likely have a lower output of emissions than many vehicles use in a fraction of the time;

Do cleaner alternatives exist? Would fuel-cell technology be able to produce enough power for the average food truck?

Posted by Derek @ Truckily on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 11:10 am

weren't here, necessitating many extra car journeys to buy junk food in drive-thru's?

SFBG just hates free-market capitalism in any and every form.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 11:33 am

I'm more concerned at the insistence that we accommodate the latest trends, be they food trucks, parklets or bike tracks.

Who cooked up the idea for first world food trucks to provide a third world dining experience, lemme guess, the people who manufacture and sell food trucks?

How much do these trucks cost?

How many sales are required to pay them down?

How many folks have sunk six figures into these contraptions only to fail within a short time?

How do the competition that these food trucks provide impact existing brick and mortar restaurants?

The City could give a crap about ambient diesel emissions even when there are laws prohibiting them. Every night before 8PM the 1900 block of Mission Street becomes a spontaneous bus depot for casino buses that ferry Asian clients to the games. These buses idle while parked, take up parking that should be used by residents and visitors and blocks the Muni lines.

The City's response is to do nothing.

Posted by marcos on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 11:53 am

Marcos what business is it of yours what the finances of the people who buy food trucks are?

Why should you care what people spend on the trucks?

Posted by Greg on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

When there is money to be made and a craze is created, the consequences of those bubbles popping impacts us all.

Whether the craze is inducing everyone to go up to their eyeballs in debt, or inducing people to go into hock for a food truck, or condos, or parklets or bike tracks, the herd stampeding in the direction of the fashionable tramples the general good in pursuit of particular greed.

The economics of arising trends are news. I guess to conservatives, the only good herd is a bewildered herd.

Posted by marcos on Aug. 30, 2012 @ 9:42 am

Some of these trucks (and some restaurants) have smokers which generate poisonous wood smoke for hours on end. This needs to be controlled too.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 01, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

Wood smoke smells good.

Posted by lillipublicans on Sep. 01, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

Isn't that picture taken at the food truck coral next to the freeway?

When I ride my bike by there it is usually around five, you can see the cars just sitting up there or crawling along as you go by the food trucks.

This is another get a life moment for our progressives.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 01, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

Amazing Emily found something new to regulate as we don't have enough of regulations already. Have a life girl move to some remote village in Montana and inhale whatever nature has there.

Posted by Matteroffactly on Sep. 10, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

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