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What’s known about Philadelphia’s drinking water after chemical spill

Residents are told it is safe to drink tap water after thousands of gallons of acrylic paint chemicals spilled into a Delaware River tributary

The Delaware River at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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A day after Philadelphia residents flocked to grocery stores to stock up on water bottles, city leaders on Monday worked to assure residents their tap water was safe — at least for now — even as questions lingered about the cause of a chemical spill in the Delaware River.

Authorities were still assessing why a chemical plant late Friday spilled thousands of gallons of an acrylic polymer into a tributary of the river, Philadelphia’s main water supply. The spill prompted authorities to warn residents to avoid drinking tap water. Those advisories have since been lifted.

“There is no need to buy water at this time. Customers can fill bottles or pitchers with tap water with no risk at this time,” the city said Sunday afternoon.

The water supply is safe to drink until at least 11:59 p.m. Monday, officials said, based on the time it takes water to move through treatment and water mains before reaching customers. But that may change as water tests continue.

Thousands of gallons of acrylic paint chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, Philadelphia’s main water supply, on March 23. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The spill from the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol Township released at least 8,100 gallons of a water-based latex finishing solution. The incident occurred because of an “equipment failure,” according to a statement from the company.

The spill follows a string of industrial accidents in southern Ohio and Pennsylvania, including a Feb. 3 train derailment and subsequent toxic chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio, and a chocolate factory explosion in West Reading, Pa., on Friday that killed seven people.

“The latex emulsion is a white liquid that is used in various consumer goods. Its pigmentation makes the water-soluble material visible in surface water,” Trinseo said in a statement. The company said it is working with local, state and federal agencies to clean up the chemical release and test water samples in the area.

In and around Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said contaminants from the spill have not been detected in drinking water intakes. While fish and wildlife had also not been determined to be affected, the department’s acting secretary, Richard Negrin, tweeted Sunday that “we will hold the responsible party accountable.”

Residents in East Palestine, Ohio were picking up bottled water on Friday and wondering about lasting health effects from a train derailment two weeks ago. (Video: Joyce Koh, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Azsaneé Truss first received an Amber-Alert-style message around 1:15 p.m. Sunday. The message said that after 2 p.m., she wouldn’t have drinking water. Truss, a Philadelphia resident, scrambled to wash her dishes and complete other house chores that would require her to use her taps.

By 1:50 p.m. she had joined a line that wrapped around a grocery store. All the water was already gone.

“We just got this random notification out of nowhere on Sunday afternoon,” said Truss, who has lived in Philadelphia for over two years. Neighbors were confused by the alerts, she said, but it wasn’t pandemonium.

“I was kind of expecting a bit more chaos, but I think everyone kind of had the understanding that chaos wasn’t going to help the situation,” Truss said.

While the full list of spilled contaminants is currently unknown, at least one of the released chemicals raised some concerns. Butyl acrylate, a chemical that was also released in the East Palestine train derailment last month, is a clear, colorless, potentially flammable liquid with a fruity aroma. Exposure could lead to irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you have a contamination incident like this, very often it’s not just a single chemical — it’s sort of this toxic soup of chemicals that contaminate the water supply,” said Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Olson advised residents to fill up their bathtub and any extra containers with tap water before the contamination seeps into the system. Experts fear that if the water becomes contaminated, it will take days or weeks to flush the entire water system of the chemicals.

While Negrin suggested the company would bear responsibility for the spill, Olson said there has historically been a lack of accountability following such incidents.

“We really need to fix our regulatory system as well as accountability system so that polluters like this are not getting off without paying for the harm that they cause,” Olson said.