Community Raises Environmental Questions Following Delaware River Chemical Spill

Environmental responders clean the shore line along the Delaware River. Photo courtesy of Mike Lutz via Getty Images.

On Sunday, March 26, the city of Philadelphia issued a public safety alert recommending that residents use bottled water as the result of the spillage of 8,000 gallons of an acrylic polymer solution. 

The chemical spill occurred late Friday, March 24 in Otter Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, at the Trinseo manufacturing plant in Bristol, Pennsylvania. According to authorities, it was the result of a pipe rupture at the plant, which caused the spillage of toxic chemicals, such as butyl acrylate, the same chemical that was released into a river in East Palestine, OH, on Feb. 3. This connection has raised questions among Swarthmore students about the environmental implications of the spill and the degree to which environmental agencies can be trusted to provide accurate information. 

The Philadelphia Water Department treats water at three different facilities in the area: Baxter, Belmont, and Queen Lane. The Baxter plant takes in water from the Delaware River, where the spill occurred, and the Belmont and Queen Lane plants treat water from the Schuylkill. 

According to the Philadelphia Water Department, residents who received their water from the Schuylkill River were not impacted, although there are parts of Center City that receive a combination of water from both the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. 

In an email to the Swarthmore community, Associate Vice President for Sustainable Facilities Operations Andrew Feick informed Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff that the water in Swarthmore was not impacted by the spill in the Delaware River. 

Water in Swarthmore and other areas of Delaware County is treated by the utility company Aqua, which has cited no evidence of water quality issues, but is continually communicating with local government agencies and testing its water supply to ensure that customers are safe. Furthermore, the company stated that it sources water from both the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, and the water sourced from the Delaware River is located upstream of where the spill took place. According to their website, because Aqua sources water from other non-Delaware River water sources, they “have the ability to move water to areas when, where, and as needed.”

Late Tuesday, March 28, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced that, after the city had collected more than 80,000 gallons of contaminated water, tap water in affected areas is safe to use. 

While immediate concerns about water contamination in Philadelphia have receded, in the wake of the Norfolk train derailment in East Palestine last month, questions still remain concerning impacted residents’ trust in government officials to report accurately on these issues. In the case of East Palestine, toxic carcinogens and contaminants were released into the air and the Ohio River, impacting residents’ health. One week after the train derailment, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that East Palestine water was safe to drink, although residents continued to express doubt over the accuracy of the information being conveyed. Specifically, residents were left wondering about the long-term health impacts of the event and whether the statements from the Ohio EPA could be trusted.  

In an interview with The Phoenix, Anna Considine ’23, a leader at C4, discussed this mistrust of government agencies. 

“There are questions that can be raised about the amount that the public can actually trust the EPA and the DEP when they say that something is safe … there’s a lot of uncertainty as to whether the tests are actually able to detect all the pollutants that they’re meant to … and whether the standards of ‘safe’ that have been set are actually safe,” she said.

This has important implications for health; if residents are falsely informed that their drinking water is safe, residents can suffer from negative health consequences as a result of drinking contaminated water. Furthermore, Considine explained, this raises issues regarding the legitimacy of the EPA itself.

“If there is this culture of not being able to trust the EPA and DEP, what does that actually mean for the credibility of those institutions?” she questioned. 

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