Officials: Philly water is safe to drink ... at least through Tuesday afternoon

Frank Kummer and Jason Laughlin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia officials say tap water from the Baxter treatment plant is safe to drink at least through 3:30 p.m. Tuesday as they continue to monitor the impact of a chemical spill from a plant upstream on the Delaware River.

So far, no contaminants related to Friday night’s inadvertent discharge of 8,100 gallons of tainted water from the Trinseo plant in Bristol, Bucks County, have been detected at the Baxter water treatment facility, which supplies drinking water for more than half of the city.

Officials said at a briefing Monday that the threat of contamination should pass by Wednesday night or Thursday. The Philadelphia Water Department said it would continue testing drinking water into next week, though, to ensure the water is safe.

By 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, the water shelves were bare at Giant on North Broad Street. Supplies looked much the same elsewhere. (Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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Randy Hayman, the department’s commissioner and CEO, said tests have been conducted at 12 locations along the Delaware River, including just outside the Baxter plant.

“All the tests so far have been negative,” Hayman said.

Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, said testing “has been going on around the clock and will continue.” The latest test was at 4 p.m. Monday.

City officials say that residents can safely continue to use the water in their homes. “It is safe to drink and use tap water to cook with it, took brush your teeth, to bathe in,” Carroll said.

The contaminants may not reach the city water supply, but if they do, officials said, they should have the capacity to treat the water, given that the chemicals would be highly diluted and pose a low risk.

If the city is unable to fully remediate any chemicals from the system, officials said they will have a plan to distribute water.

Anne Nadol, the city’s commerce director, said restaurants and businesses should also have no fear of using tap water for now. She said officials hope to give another update Tuesday morning.

Officials are recommending that schools, day cares and restaurants continue to operate.

“Let’s be clear,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “The city has been monitoring this since it first occurred on Friday night. PWD has been active since the weekend, working with the U.S. Coast Guard. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is constantly monitoring and testing the work to ensure the health of the public.”

No traces of the chemicals have been found in any water system along the Pennsylvania or New Jersey sides of the river.

The chemical spill

Friday’s spill occurred at a chemical plant owned by Trinseo, a manufacturing firm that makes plastics and latex binders. The company said that an “equipment failure” resulted in 8,100 gallons of latex emulsion solution dumped into Otter Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. The solution is about 50% water and 50% latex polymer, according to the company. The solution also contains butyl acrylate, one of the chemicals released in February’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, when rail cars caught fire and left a cloud of toxic smoke over the town, causing an evacuation and health scare.

The plant that produces acrylic products like Altuglas, similar to Plexiglas, has a history of mishaps — including at least four recent contamination incidents. It is located within a cluster of industrial companies along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia that has hosted chemical giants since the early 20th century.

Throughout its history, the site has been subject to frequent monitoring by government regulators. Over the past decade, the U.S. Coast Guard twice before detected releases of acrylates, which can be toxic, from the Bristol facility into the Delaware. The EPA had separately flagged two other acrylate releases.

A big concern in Philly

Friday’s spill highlighted the city’s vulnerability when it comes to water: It is at the mercy of river water and cannot draw from underground aquifers, unlike water departments in communities such as Camden, New Jersey, which gets water from wells in addition to the river.

The Philadelphia Water Department provides drinking water for 1.7 million residents of the city as well as Lower Bucks County. It operates three main drinking plants that treat hundreds of millions of gallons of water daily. The Baxter treatment plant in Torresdale takes in water from the Delaware River and serves about 58% of the city. The Queen Lane and Belmont plants take in water from the Schuylkill.

The plants use an elaborate process that screens out solids, doses it with chlorine, and filters through layers of sand, gravel and carbon. The water is dosed again with chlorine to preserve it on a journey through miles of pipe to individual homes and businesses. The system complies with National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for about 100 contaminants.

But the city does not normally look for, or treat, any of the three chemicals released in the spill.

Early warning system worked

Chris Crockett, chief environmental, safety and sustainability officer for water company Aqua Pennsylvania, said none of the water systems it operates surrounding Philadelphia has detected the chemicals released in the spill.

Crockett said water officials throughout the region were notified quickly of the spill through the Delaware Valley Early Warning System, which he helped start when he worked for the Philadelphia Water Department. The system acts as a regional information hub during spills.

Aqua, as well as other water utilities in the system, were already testing for butyl acrylate because officials moved to put testing standards in place in the Philadelphia area after the East Palestine derailment.

The EPA has not issued guidance for maximum contaminant levels for butyl acrylate. But the Centers for Disease Control has offered guidance of a maximum of 500 parts per billion.

He said the system’s computer modeling predicted the path of the spill and how long the chemical compound would take to work its way down the river.

“I know the public is worried about this,” Crockett said. “But the systems that we have put in place on the Delaware River actually worked exactly like they were supposed to.”

Philadelphia is using the same detection standards as Aqua, according to Carroll. And the modeling has helped city officials figure out where chemicals from the spill are heading.

“The smallest amount we can detect is in a single part per billion,” Carroll said. “We’ve detected none of the material in any of the testing that we’ve done.”

— Philadelphia Inquiree staff writers Ryan Briggs and Beatrice Forman contributed to this report.