Chemical spills and the lenient officials


Megan McKnight

After a chemical spill contaminated the Philadelphia water supply, many citizens are fed up with the lack of a cohesive response from their government.

Megan McKnight, Copy Editor

A resin manufacturing plant in Philadelphia accidentally spilled a massive amount of water-soluble latex into the Delaware river on Friday, March 24, concerning many officials with the possibility of water contamination. Although the water supply was officially marked as clean on March 28, many citizens are still upset at the lack of transparency from their local government and the EPA.

Machinery at a resin plant owned by Trinseo PLC malfunctioned, sending roughly 8,000 gallons of a water-soluble latex mixture into a tributary of the Delaware River. The Baxter Water Treatment Plant is located along the river and provides much of the Philadelphia area with clean tap water. 

The city issued a statement at 6 p.m. the following day warning Philadelphia residents about the spill, but offered no warning about the contamination of the water. However, in a later report released by the US Coast Guard, it was found that 60,000 gallons of contaminated water had been collected from the tributary. They also added that contamination was difficult to identify since the solution dissolved instantly upon contact with the water.

On March 26, another statement was issued, warning residents not to use tap water for the foreseeable future while it was being tested.

The statement came from Michael Carrol, Deputy Managing Director for the City’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, also known as OTIS. “I want to reiterate that the health risks are very low if present at all. No acute effects are associated with low level exposure. Our best information is that people who ingest water will not suffer any near-term symptoms or acute medical conditions. We foresee no reason to seek medical attention related to this event,” he said.

However, the chemicals that spilled can cause severe health complications if swallowed. Butyl acrylate was the main component of the spilled mixture and can prove fatal if swallowed, so the CDC advises getting medical attention right away. Ethyl acrylate and methyl methacrylate, the other two chemicals in the mixture, can also cause serious health complications if ingested.

Despite their unconvincing certainty that the water was not dangerous, the local government seemed cautious in giving out their notices. Over the next week, multiple alerts were sent to Philadelphia citizens’ phones saying that the water would be safe to drink only until the afternoon of the next day.

The alerts finally ended on March 28, when a final message was sent out assuring citizens that their tap water was clean and safe to drink, although the plant would be continually monitored for the next couple of days. 

Despite the government’s insistence that the water was clean, many Philadelphia citizens rushed to buy cases of bottled water, and with a population of 1.6 million people, Philadelphia grocery stores faced a massive bottled water shortage. 

Stores in the area were swarmed with people frantically trying to buy bottled water. One ShopRite store had to limit customers to three cases per person, and multiple videos on local news channels show “sold out of water” signs hastily taped to storefronts.

The event was captured on social media, dubbed the “Philadelphia Water Crisis.” Multiple videos circulating on news and social media show stores swarming with people and filled with empty water shelves. Residents in the Philadelphia area documented their concern and distrust surrounding the issue. 

One TikTok video shows a crowd of people swarming around a pallet full of bottled water, pushing and shoving to secure their case. 

Even more creators offered advice to those in Philadelphia, some even advising driving out of state to stock up on supplies. One TikTok user advised the citizens of Philadelphia how to secure bottled water in a recent video. “Fun fact Philly, if you buy Seltzer water and just leave the cap off for a day, it becomes regular water,” she suggested.

Despite the mass panic, the Philadelphia government maintains that it was completely transparent with its updates. “Everything we have done to communicate with the public has been done in the interest of both transparency and out of an abundance of care and caution to make sure our people are safe,” Carroll continued.

PVHS senior Jake Wilstead believes that this situation was handled irresponsibly. “It is the government’s job to communicate thoroughly with its citizens and for politicians to communicate with their constituents. This becomes even more pertinent regarding environmental catastrophes,” he said. “If the government does not communicate adequately with its citizens during natural disasters, people can be hurt, and in some cases, the implications could be fatal.”

It is not only upsetting that the solution was spilled, endangering the lives of millions of people, but it is down right disgraceful that the citizens of Philadelphia had to turn to TikTok to get advice on how to secure safe drinking water rather than their own government. The government of Philadelphia could have made an effort to secure bottled water for its citizens, but instead it left millions of people in a state of panic as they rushed to stores, desperate to find some water to keep themselves and their families safe.

This event also shares many frightening parallels with the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, when a train crash caused many toxic chemicals to spill into the air and waterways. Residents were ordered to evacuate immediately, and much of the local wildlife suffered due to the large concentration of deadly chemicals. One of these chemicals was butyl acrylate, the same chemical that made up the majority of the latex mixture spilled in Philadelphia. 

Despite the severity of the crash and its devastating effects on the environment, the crash didn’t garner much national media coverage until days later. Even after the EPA declared all the houses safe, terrified residents confronted their local government, demanding to know if their homes were really safe.

Some local residents along the Mississippi River were also concerned that the chemical spill in East Palestine could affect the safety of their drinking water, as the basin feeds into the Ohio River. However, the government assured residents that the chemicals would be too diluted by the sheer size of the Mississippi, and so residents along that river are perfectly safe.

In both of these cases, potentially deadly chemicals were released into the local water supply and endangered the lives of innocent people, and yet the updates from the government were vague and lacked specificity. 

When a devastating event occurs in a large community, it is the responsibility of all levels of government to keep their citizens  updated and avoid causing a mass panic. Government officials must communicate more clearly to the people they are meant to protect, especially in the face of disasters.