Water Spill in Philadelphia Worries Residents


Courtesy of Chase Sutton / The Daily Pennsylvanian

A chemical spill in the river worried residents, as reports conflicted on whether the water was drinkable or not.

Katie Reed, News Columnist

On Sunday, March 26th, Michael Carrol, the Deputy Managing Director for the City’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, released an update on the Philadelphia Department of Water’s (PWD) website regarding a latex spill in the Bucks County area.

“As has been reported, on Friday night, a chemical spill occurred in Bristol Township, Bucks County which released contaminants into the Delaware River,” Carrol said. “The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) became aware of this through the Delaware Valley Early Warning System (EWS) and has been evaluating the situation since that time to understand potential impacts to the public. Although early indications have not revealed contamination, we are still monitoring the situation and conducting testing.”

Many residents were unsure about the safety of their tap water.

“Nonetheless, because we cannot be 100 percent sure that there won’t be traces of these chemicals in the tap water throughout the afternoon, we want the public to be aware so that people can consider switching to bottled water to further minimize any risk,” Carrol said. “Therefore, we are notifying the public in the customer service area that they may wish not to drink or cook with tap water. We will update this information later this afternoon.”

While the contaminants in the water would not have had an effect on using showers or washing dishes, the biggest concern was the drinking water, which PWD assured the public it would continue to monitor and conduct testing on. It was ultimately declared on Tuesday, March 28th that the drinking water in Philadelphia would not be affected by the spill. 

Dr. Kelly Good is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Villanova with expertise in water and environmental systems, water-energy nexus and drinking water. She previously worked for a drinking water utility—though not PWD—and used to live in one of the Philadelphia neighborhoods that could have been affected by the spill, so she was following the situation closely.

“I found myself thinking, I can see how this [spill] would maybe seem confusing or maybe scary to the general public, especially because of the train derailment recently,” Good said. “But, knowing how a drinking water system works, how it’s operated, and what systems are in place for emergency management, I felt like what [PWD] was communicating was demonstrating that they were being very cautious, which is what you want.” 

Good mentioned how the EWS was instrumental in helping to resolve the situation efficiently and catch the spill early.

“The Delaware River is tidally influenced, so it’s not as simple as another river system that’s not tidally influenced, where if you have something that enters it, it just travels downstream,” Good said. “In a tidally influenced river, there’s a sloshing effect, so this type of Early Warning System is super useful, and this is exactly what it’s designed for. When something unexpected happens, [PWD] wants to see what’s happening in the river, and they’re going to use that in conjunction with water quality testing and modeling to have a rapid response.” 

Good also noted how this unexpected event revealed the importance of being more prepared and having more supplies in case of an emergency. 

“Emergency management people recommend that we have certain supplies on hand for things that could happen—we’re all supposed to have a couple days’ worth of water, some shelf stable food, or flashlights,” Good said. “I think this [situation] was also a reminder for people, including myself, that we should probably have some more water on hand.”

Good pointed out that we often take services like access to clean water for granted and that a lot goes on behind the scenes to provide us with such services, citing the near 15 million people who get their drinking water from the Delaware River Watershed.  As a member of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, an organization that seeks to understand how human activities make water systems vulnerable, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, Good highlighted how important it is to dedicate resources to infrastructure to help keep these water systems safe and clean. 

“Finding ways to both fund infrastructure and have the public understand why the money is being spent on infrastructure is part of what we view in civil and environmental engineering as an important part of our society,” Good said. “Just like in our homes, if we don’t maintain and invest in upkeep, things can happen, so [the spill in Bucks County] is a reminder about infrastructure investment.”

For more information on the latex spill, Good identified local Philadelphia news sources, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer or the local NPR station, WHYY-FM, as good sources to review.