An environmental clean-up crew works to remove gasoline fuel from an ETP pipeline spill in Darby creek in Tinicum Township in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s water was spared any contamination, but last weekend’s chemical spill into the Delaware River aligns with a pattern of environmentally harmful incidents along the region’s largest, most important waterway. 

The river has been assaulted by industrialization for centuries, but there’s no shortage of recent incidents — including several at the very same Bristol Township plant where the release of latex emulsion led to a run on bottled water and confusion about drinking water across Philadelphia.  

Big events like the Bucks County leak are just notable spikes amid the regular churn of water pollution, noted Maya van Rossum, who’s led the Delaware Riverkeeper Network for three decades.

Materials enter the Delaware on a daily basis, van Rossum told Billy Penn, “either directly coming out of a pipe that is legal (pursuant to permits), pollution that’s washed off of the land because of actions on our landscapes, or ecological damage because of inappropriate development like stripping away the natural ecosystems of the floodplains.”

Van Rossum said she’s often directly in touch with officials in the wake of environmental accidents, and thought the recent spill had less than ideal communication, including a lack of sharing all that’s known about the ecological impact.

It wasn’t “uncharacteristic” of government, she said, but it could’ve been better. “In past catastrophic events along the Delaware River, we have seen much more effective and responsible data collection and information sharing,” van Rossum said. 

What has happened in the past?

The frequency of events that harm the Delaware River and attached waterways is striking. Here’s an abridged survey of recent spills, accidents, and incidents that threatened Philadelphia’s waterways. 

Bristol plant’s trials and tribulations

The Altuglas plant in Bristol, Pa., that leaked latex finishing material into a Delaware River tributary last week has a history. This isn’t its first rodeo. 

The same plant, which Trinseo purchased in 2021, has been the site of multiple spills and federal investigations, per The Inquirer, including in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2021. 

The incident two years ago included the spilling of an unknown amount of methyl methacrylate, which was also among the chemicals released over the weekend. The EPA confirmed that 1,760 pounds of the same chemical was released in 2010. 

Delaware River waterfront in Bristol, Pa. (Wikimedia Commons/Jonathansammy)

Maya van Rossum, of the Riverkeeper Network, noted that serial spilling is common. “Usually the bad actors are repeat bad actors,” she said. 

Sunoco, which owned the former Southwest Philly oil refinery operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which was responsible for years and years of pollution.  

Paulsboro train derailment (2012)

Anxieties around the current water crisis have been augmented by an event affecting Pennsylvanians on the other side of the commonwealth: the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. 

When that news hit, many Philadelphians instantly recalled an eerily similar event in 2012, a train derailment in Paulsboro, New Jersey. 

On a bridge crossing the Mantua Creek, yet another Delaware River tributary, 23,000 gallons of gaseous vinyl chloride (like in East Palestine) was leaked into the air, leading to the evacuation of over 500 residents in a 12-mile radius. 

A detailed overview of the overturned train cars carrying vinyl chloride in New Jersey’s Mantua Creek. (Conrail Derailment Incident Command/NOAA)

A review of the local response found that authorities incorrectly handled the event, failing to give first responders breathing apparatuses or set up command posts outside of the impacted area.

The derailment did lead to suggested reforms and guidance for Conrail, the company involved in the incident, in a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. But the legal liability of firms in such environmental accidents can be quite limited, per van Rossum, one of the compounding issues with trying to maintain safe waterways. 

“It’s not just one single pollution input, it’s this cumulative impact from all these sorts of harms: Pollution coming out of the pipe, pollution washing off of the land, and the desecration of the natural ecosystems critical for filtering pollution,” said van Rossum. 

Athos 1 tanker spill (2004)

Perhaps most infamous when it comes to oil spills is the Athos 1 grounding in 2004. The Greek oil tanker was preparing to dock at a Paulsboro, N.J. refinery when it struck a few different items, including a sunken anchor that pierced the bottom of the ship. 

The tanker leaked nearly 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, contaminating over 250 miles of estuary shoreline. The Coast Guard halted all commercial activity on the river for over a week. 

The Athos 1 listing to starboard the day after the spill began (NOAA)

It took months to clean up the spill, which cost over $160 million all told, according to The Inquirer. 

Over a decade later, a judge ordered Citgo — which runs the refinery in question — to pay the firms that owned and operated the tanker a total of $71.5 million, and reimburse half the cost of the government’s cleanup costs, a $48.6 million hit. 

Sunoco spill at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (2000)

On February 5, 2000, an oil spill was discovered on the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. One of five pipelines running underneath the refuge had a 3-inch crack. That size might seem benign, but it was enough to release 192,000 gallons of oil into the largest freshwater tidal wetland area in Pennsylvania.

Remediation and restoration efforts began shortly after: removing old dredge spoil from the impacted area; planting native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs; building pedestrian bridges; and creating interpretive signs, per a 2011 Department of Interior factsheet.

Five years later, Sunoco agreed to pay north of $3.6 million to settle a federal lawsuit stemming from the spill. 

An environmental clean-up crew works to remove gasoline fuel from a more recent, less voluminous pipeline spill near the refuge in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ultimately, the restoration effort resulted in more wetlands at the wildlife refuge, which is home to over 80 kinds of birds, and a pit stop of sorts for many more species of fowl. 

How animals have been affected by the most recent chemical leak is an especially big question for van Rossum, who thinks concern for non-human life has been lost in the mix. 

It wasn’t directly addressed by officials until their fourth or fifth press conference held Monday afternoon, when Deputy Managing Director Mike Carroll responded to a reporter’s question, confirming the city had seen “no fish kill as a result of this event,” nor other “indications of any harm” to the environment.

“Wildlife is a part of our community and very important to our healthy lives as well,” said van Rossum. “And we’re not seeing any of those other agencies come out and let us know that monitoring [wildlife] is or is not happening, what’s it showing, and if people see a problem, where to report it to.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Trinseo purchased the Bristol plant.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...