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March 27, 2023

Philly tap water remains safe to drink through at least Wednesday, officials now say

Tests continue to show no contamination in the city's water supply following the chemical spill into Bucks County's Otter Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River

Environment Water
Delaware River Water Chemical Spill Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia officials so far have not found any signs of chemical contamination in the city's drinking water supply after a latex solution flowed into the Delaware River after an industrial spill in Bucks County.

UPDATE  (3/28/23 at 8:07 a.m.): Philadelphia officials now say the tap water supply to most city residents and business will remain safe to drink until at least 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, March 29. The time has been extended based on the latest water test results from the Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant, officials said Tuesday morning.

Philadelphia residents who live in the areas of the city where their water supply is pumped from Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant can safely drink tap water until at least 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, city officials said Monday evening.

The city's water supply so far has not been contaminated by the chemical spill from a manufacturing plant into Otter Creek in Bucks County. Ongoing tests of water samples will determine whether the chemicals that flowed into the Delaware River will pose any danger to the public beyond Tuesday afternoon.

Otter Creek is a tributary to the Delaware River, from which the Baxter treatment plant draws water to be processed and then pumped to residents in Northeast Philly, North Philly, the River Wards, Center City and all of South Philly. The city has created a map that people can use to search addresses and determine if they are in potentially affected areas.

"No contaminants have been detected in the Delaware River in the vicinity of our plant, and no contaminants have been detected within the plant for anywhere in the Philadelphia water system," said Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for transportation, infrastructure and sustainability. "Your tap water is and remains safe."

Since Friday night's chemical spill at the Trinseo Altuglas plant in Bristol Township, the Philadelphia Water Department has conducted more than 40 rounds of tests on the Delaware River, the raw basin and the Baxter Water Treatment Plant, which is the main city water facility impacted by the downstream path of the spill.

All of the water department's tests have come back negative for contaminants, including the most recent results from about 4 p.m. Monday. 

The possible health risk to the public is unlikely to last beyond Wednesday night or Thursday, at which point the chemical plume flowing down the river is expected to pass beyond the Baxter facility, Carroll said.

Continuous testing will extend for several more days afterward to ensure that no contamination is present.

"We do not expect this to last longer than next week," Carroll said. 

The public is advised, in the meantime, to maintain supplies of water that can last three days. This includes bottled drinking water or tap water taken from the faucet and stored in containers before 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. 

The city's tap water also remains safe for pets to drink, and there are no immediate concerns about skin contact with potential toxins when people bathe or brush their teeth. 

Officials are not recommending any closures of schools or businesses at this time. Restaurants can safely use tap water until at least tomorrow afternoon. These businesses are advised to keep emergency supplies of tap water on hand in the event that circumstances change. 

Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Randy Heyman explained that testing for hazardous chemicals is a rigorous, time-consuming process that involves multiple levels of analysis at different sites. 

"Our main tool in addressing this problem is testing — old-fashioned testing," Heyman said. 

The array of tests is looking at samples for a variety of organic molecules used to make the polymers that spilled into the river. The synthetic latex solution does not represent a threat to those with natural latex allergies.

The chemicals identified in the spill are butyl acrylate, ethel acrylate and methyl methacrylate, all of which have some known health risks more commonly associated with inhalation. City officials declined to comment on any specific hazards these chemicals my pose in drinking water, but said the focus of the response has been to prevent them from ever entering the Baxter facility. 

"We've applied the science to make sure we're not introducing any detectable level of these chemicals into the water system," Carroll said. 

The water department is comparing its test results to the safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in order to ensure that the city's tap water remains safe to the public. 

"We've detected none of this material in any of the tests we've done," Carroll said. 

A "cloud" of chemicals that initially flowed along the Delaware River after the spill is no longer visible in the water, officials said. The U.S. Coast Guard's tests of water from the river also have not found any results containing the chemicals from the Bucks County spill. 

"What we were facing Friday night going into Saturday morning was a cloud floating down the Delaware River," Heyman said. "A very serious concern we had was, what is that cloud? Is it safe? And can we treat it? That's a big issue. Can we treat it? Can we eliminate it?"

Carroll said it was "very likely" that no contaminated water will enter the Baxter facility. Its intakes have been periodically shut and reopened since Friday. The city must maintain a level of water that will protect the plant's equipment and provide necessary resources for the fire department and other needs. 

If contaminants are found in samples that could affect the tap water supply, city officials plan to notify the public immediately. A water distribution plan has been developed that will prioritize vulnerable populations first, although officials did not elaborate on the specifics of the distribution plan. 

Hayman estimated that if contaminated water were to enter the reservoirs at the Baxter facility, the water department would adjust its processing rate in order to delay any impact on the public. It could take 24-48 hours from the time contaminated samples are found at the plant before that water reaches taps at city homes and businesses, allowing the city and the public to adjust to the water distribution plan. 

Mayor Jim Kenney responded Monday to criticism over the city's recommendation Sunday for people to purchase bottled water as a precaution following the chemical spill. The public alert led to a run on grocery stores, depleting supplies of bottled water in the region Sunday afternoon. 

"The process of testing is what takes longer than you would like, longer than we would like to make sure that the tests are accurate," Kenney said. "We have to wait for the information and then we have to push it out. So I mean, look, it's a difficult situation. You're going to find critics all the time. And you just got to make sure it's safe. Make sure the water supply stays safe. And we'll move on from the situation."

An investigation into the spill in Bucks County remains ongoing with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Resources to stay informed 

Any drinking water quality update will be announced through ReadyPhiladelphia notifications and the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. The Philadelphia Water Department has been monitoring the incident since being alerted and is using computer models to monitor the flow of the spill. 

To get alerts about drinking water quality, sign up for ReadyPhiladelphia by texting READYPHILA to 888-777 for free phone alerts or customize free text and email alerts by visiting the Office of Emergency Management’s website

For updates from the city, follow OEM on Twitter or Facebook. Other City Twitter accounts to follow for information include @PhiladelphiaGov and @PhillyH2O