PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia water officials say they continue to see no sign of contamination following a chemical spill into the Delaware River upstream of the city and are confident that drinking water will be unaffected at least through Wednesday night.
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 due to a burst pipe at the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol Township.
Officials said it is non-toxic to humans, and no known adverse health effects have been reported in the county.
Philadelphia officials say they have been testing samples from as many as a dozen locations, and contaminants related to the discharge haven’t been found so far. They announced Tuesday morning that the water in city taps will be unaffected until at least 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, based on the time it takes for water to be treated and reach customers.
The city says residents can continue to drink and use tap water with no risk.
A top city official has said any spill conditions would last no later than Thursday, and they may know by Wednesday night that the pollution has completely passed the city’s treatment plant. They plan to hold a public briefing Tuesday night, after the latest sampling results are in.
Officials vowed to notify the public immediately if water quality sampling indicates a potential impact on the river water entering the Baxter Water Treatment Plant in northeast Philadelphia. Intakes to the plant were initially closed after the spill but were later opened to maintain minimal water levels to avoid damage to equipment and to supply water for fire safety and other essential needs.
Michael Carroll, deputy managing director for the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, said Monday night that the city had materials available to treat contaminated water should any enter the system. If tests showed such treatment was “100% effective,” he said the city would then be able to reassure the public that they could continue to use their tap water. Out of an abundance of caution, they were also developing plans to distribute water if needed, providing “timely information on a block-by-block basis,” Carroll said.
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.
"Typically, at the levels we’re talking about — there is potential for these chemicals in higher concentrations to cause skin irritations, to cause neurological effects — at these very low levels that would have to be the case in any contamination, we wouldn’t necessarily anticipate seeing any effects,” Bettigole said.
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.