💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter
Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.
Philly officials on Tuesday gave the “all clear” and said the chemical spill in Bucks County will not have any impact on the city’s drinking water.
“I’m pleased to announced that Philadelphia’s drinking water will not be impacted by the spill in Bucks County that occurred over the weekend,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a Tuesday evening press conference. “Models tracking the flow and tide of the Delaware River show the potential threat is passing us.”
An emergency alert that Philadelphians may want to avoid drinking or cooking with tap water because of a chemical spill in Bucks County had been sent out first on Sunday, then pushed ahead day by day as officials cleared each day’s water supply.
Throughout the scare, no contamination was ever found in Philly’s water system, according to Deputy Managing Director Mike Carroll.
City officials originally advised residents to switch to bottled water at 2 p.m. Sunday, as a precaution. After infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatography testing and analysis, they extended the deadline to midnight on Monday, because that’s when they estimated water containing possible contaminants might make it through Philadelphia’s Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant, travel down the water mains, and flow into individual taps.
Hazardous materials were released after an equipment failure at the Trinseo Altuglas manufacturing facility in Bristol Township just before midnight Friday, causing more than 8,000 gallons of latex emulsion chemicals to pour into Otter Creek, according to the chemical company.
The creek flows into the Delaware River, which supplies water to the eastern half of Philadelphia.
There was never a concern over skin exposure, or inhalation, Carroll said, and the city issued its initial advisory about ingesting water out of an “abundance of caution.”
The U.S. Coast Guard immediately began helping with cleanup. The Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection had people onsite a few hours after the spill, according to DEP Acting Secretary Rich Negrin, and worked with the EPA, Coast Guard, Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, and the utility companies in the area: Aqua Pennsylvania, Lower Bucks Joint Municipal Authority, Philadelphia Water Department, and New Jersey American.
An aerial survey Sunday afternoon by Philly police and the DEP did not show any “plumes” of the hazardous materials in the Delaware, Carroll said.
Here’s what else we know about the spill.
What parts of the city could have been affected?
The parts of the city that get water from the Delaware River were potentially impacted, according to the Water Dept., which released a map showing the specific area.
The only areas not potentially impacted, per the map, are Southwest Philly, West Philly, and neighborhoods in upper Northwest Philly, like Roxborough and Chestnut Hill.
What did this mean for restaurants and bars in affected areas?
The city’s initial advisory said restaurants and food businesses would be safe conducting their normal business 2 p.m., serving lunch as usual. The Department of Commerce then updated restaurants that they should be good through 8 p.m., per an industry source.
Later on Sunday, officials pushed the deadline to midnight on Monday. On Tuesday morning, they pushed the safe-water confirmation to Wednesday at midnight. On Tuesday afternoon, they gave the all-clear.
Related on Billy Penn
Some restaurants had already opted to stay closed for Sunday evening, while others were buying bottled water for use during service.
“No closures are recommended, no cancelations are recommended at this point,” Commerce Director Nadol said on Monday.
Where did the chemicals come from?
The hazards originated at a chemical plant owned by Altuglas LLC, which is a subsidiary of Trinseo, the company said in a Sunday afternoon statement.
“Equipment failure” was the cause identified in the official statement. More specifically, it was a pipe rupture, a Trinseo spokesperson told Billy Penn.
“The pipe conveyed finished product from one building to a holding tank in another building; that’s why it was outdoors and above-ground,” the spokesperson explained.
A senior VP told 6ABC that the chemicals then traveled through a rain gutter on a roof to a storm drain to an outfall basin. From there they started to leak into the river.
Trinseo has not seen an incident like this at the Bristol plant since buying it, the spokesperson said, adding that the company is undertaking a “thorough review” of its material handling processes and systems to avoid off-site releases in the event of a future malfunction.
As of early Sunday morning, no additional contaminants were entering the river, according to the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection.
What does Trinseo do?
Trinseo is a publicly traded spinoff of Dow Chemical that’s based in Pennsylvania. Its Bucks County plant is located along state Route 413, just north of the Burlington-Bristol bridge.
The plant focuses on making plastics — it was previously owned by Altuglas International, European makers of plexiglass — and what’s called “latex binders.”
Latex binders are considered a growth industry, with the U.S. market estimated at $6.5 billion last year and expected to reach $11 billion by 2030. The chemicals have applications in dozens of textile and other industries. They’re used to create waterproof coatings for printed materials, to help make cement more malleable, and in various other applications in the medical and manufacturing industry.
What specific chemicals were released?
The Coast Guard referred to the chemicals as “latex finishing material,” and said a total of 12,000 gallons could have leaked into the creek.
“The latex emulsion is a white liquid that is used in various consumer goods,” Altuglas said in its statement. “Its pigmentation makes the water-soluble material visible in surface water.”
Deputy Managing Director Carroll offered additional details: The spill included ethyl acrylate, MMA (methyl methacrylate), and butyl acrylate — which was also found after the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
What effects could these chemicals have?
Here’s what the federal government says about each of the chemicals the city identified.
- Ethyl acrylate: Found organically in pineapple, it’s used to make paints and plastics. Acute exposure has been reported to cause drowsiness, nausea, and headaches, and the EPA classifies it as a possible carcinogen.
- Butyl acrylate: A highly flammable chemical that can cause irritation after contact with skin or eyes, or cause respiratory problems if inhaled in large quantities.
- Methyl methacrylate: A reactive resin sometimes used as cement in dentistry, orthopedic surgery and ophthalmology. It’s not considered carcinogenic under normal use.
The amounts of the chemicals entering the Philadelphia water supply are expected to be very low, per officials. “No contamination has reached our water system,” said Water Commissioner Randy Hayman, who has served in the position since 2019.
“No acute effects are associated with low level exposure,” said Deputy Managing Director Carroll. “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.”
There was never a need to stop bathing or showering with tap water, Carroll said.
How does this connect with Philly’s water supply?
About half of Philadelphia’s water supply comes from the Delaware River, and the other half from the Schuylkill.
Drinking water from the Delaware is treated at the Samuel S. Baxter plant at 9001 State Rd., just north of where Pennypack Creek empties into the river — about 8 miles downriver from the Trinseo plant in Bucks County.
What steps did Philadelphia Water take?
Water officials flushed the Baxter Treatment Plant early Sunday, with the intakes opened around 12:15 a.m. to coincide with high tide. The intake was closed at 5 a.m. Sunday. That happened again overnight Monday and Tuesday.
“This was done to maintain minimum levels of water in the system to avoid any damage to our equipment to continue supplying water for including fire safety and other needs,” Deputy Managing Director Carroll explained.
The water already in the system has been cleared as contaminant free, and officials said Tuesday afternoon they believe the danger has passed.
Philly officials did say they were working with partners to develop a water distribution plan in case it becames necessary.
Was there any effect on wildlife?
“We’ve confirmed there’s been no fish kill as a result of this event,” Carroll said on Monday afternoon, “and we’ve seen no other indications of any harm.”