PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia officials say the city's water system will not be affected by a chemical spill into the Delaware River upstream last week.
“We can all confidentially say the threat has passed — I repeat: All the city’s drinking water is safe to drink and will not be impacted by the spill,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday night. Sampling hasn't detected any substance from the spill, and "models tracking the flow and tide of the Delaware River show the potential threat is passing us,” he said.
Health officials in Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia, said Sunday that between 8,100 and 12,000 gallons (30,700 and 120,000 liters) of a water-based latex-finishing solution spilled into the river late Friday because of a burst pipe at the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol Township.
Officials said it is nontoxic to humans, and no known adverse health effects have been reported in the county.
Philadelphia officials said tests of hundreds of samples from a number of locations had turned up no trace of contaminants related to the discharge. The final all-clear came after days of announcements that water could be guaranteed uncontaminated at least through Monday, then into Tuesday afternoon and finally through Wednesday.
“Throughout the whole event, no contaminants were ever found in Philadelphia's drinking water,” said Michael Carroll, deputy managing director for the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. He punctuated his words by drinking a glass of water at the podium, as did the mayor at the end of the news conference.
Carroll said the all-clear comes after Coast Guard tests of water from the river continued to show no contamination and water brought into the city system from the river for about four hours early Tuesday was contaminant-free.
“So we know we have enough water on-hand now to last us for about 48 hours ... and when we open the gates again we know that that water is going to be in that window where there's no contamination in the river,” he said. Elevated tests, however, will continue until environmental officials say it is all right to ease off, he said.
Intakes allowing water from the river into the Baxter Water Treatment Plant in northeast Philadelphia about 13 miles (21 kilometers) south of the spill were initially closed. But they were later opened periodically to maintain minimal water levels to avoid damage to equipment and to supply water for fire safety and other essential needs, officials said.
Carroll had said Monday night that the city had materials available to treat contaminated water should any enter the system and out of an abundance of caution were also developing plans to distribute water if needed, providing “timely information on a block-by-block basis.”
The city's health commissioner, Cheryl Bettigole, said any contamination, if it were to occur, would be at a “very, very low level” after the chemicals had come through the river and through treatment, making any health risks “extremely unlikely,” although officials would want to inform people so they could elect to take precautions.
Announcements and an alert sent out Sunday were followed by a run on bottled water in Philadelphia stores that left many bare shelves and “No water” signs posted at some. If bottled water was unavailable, officials said, people could fill empty bottles with tap water.
Asher Rosinger, a Penn State University researcher who studies water access, said big, headline-grabbing events casting doubt on water safety could increase distrust in tap water among city residents, something that has already worsened across the nation after the Flint water crisis.
Already, 20% of adults nationally say they don’t drink tap water — filtered or not — up from 14% before the Flint crisis, according to a study of federal survey data. The figures are higher among Black adults, with 35% saying they avoid drinking tap, up from 25% before Flint. Among Hispanic adults, the figure rose to 38%, up from 27%.
Philadelphia is one of the few major cities that has actively tried to increase trust, running campaigns promoting the cost and safety of its tap water, but distrust is a lingering issue. Among Black residents in 2021, more than 60% said they mostly drank bottled water, compared to 42% of Philadelphia residents overall.
“Philly has done a lot to try to increase tap water use and confidence in the tap,” Rosinger said in an email. “This type of spill will set that effort back.”
Trinseo said that following an internal review of operations at the plant, which makes acrylic resins and employs about 110 people, the company “expects to resume partial production within the next several days and to resume full production shortly thereafter.”
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network said the level of information released to the public has been “incredibly deficient and undermines public trust.” The environmental advocacy group has asked authorities to provide more details on testing and the materials released and for the public to be told where they can report any damage they see to the river.
Michael Phillis reported from St. Louis.