Philly tap water safe to drink until at least Wednesday night

Officials say the city’s tap water is safe to drink until at least 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. They expect the contamination to clear by Thursday.

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The Samuel S. Baxter Water Treatment Plant on State Road in Philadelphia, Pa.

The Samuel S. Baxter Water Treatment Plant on State Road in Philadelphia, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

City officials say Philadelphia residents’ water is safe to drink until at least 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

The announcement is the latest update issued since Monday evening, and extends a previous advisory that told residents the water would be safe up until Tuesday afternoon. Late Friday evening, more than 8,000 gallons of a water-based latex finishing solution from the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol, Bucks County spilled into the Delaware River.

Speaking at the city’s most recent update on the spill Monday, Mike Carroll, deputy managing director of the City’s Office of Transportation Infrastructure, and Sustainability, said none of the hazardous chemicals have been detected in the city’s water supply.

“It is safe to drink and use tap water to cook with it, to brush your teeth, to bathe in it,” he said.  “Use tap water as you normally do.”

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The owner of the plant, which makes acrylic resins, said the spill was the result of equipment failure. On Sunday, officials advised residents to buy bottled water — causing supply shortages at some supermarkets across the region. However, the city later informed the public that the water was safe, and none of the contaminants had been detected at the Baxter Water Treatment facility in Northeast Philadelphia, which lies about 8 miles downriver from the spill.

The chemicals in the hazardous fluid include butyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, and methyl methacrylate. As of Monday, 60,000 gallons of contaminated water had been collected.

The Water Department said it’s testing water in the Delaware River and the raw water supply held in a basin at the Baxter plant “around the clock,” as the water impacted by the spill continues to travel. However, the impacted water is expected to clear the area by Thursday.

Officials say it’s “very likely” the contamination won’t end up in the water supply, and that the issue will be resolved by next week. They plan to give another update on the situation Tuesday evening.

“The key for us is not letting anything in the system to begin with and hopefully the tide will bring it down and dissipate into the ocean,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

The Delaware River is tidal up until Trenton, and rises and falls 6 feet twice a day.

Water commissioner Randy Hayman said evaluating the health of the water supply requires patience.

“It’s our responsibility to protect the health and safety of the community,” he said at Monday afternoon’s press conference.

“That includes your family, your neighbors, your friends. And we take that responsibility very seriously every day,” he said. “And that’s why we have to be patient to make sure that we do the right thing, that we take the right tests, that we analyze it completely, and that we’re able to protect you and your family.”

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Officials will update the public on Tuesday morning on whether they can continue to drink water from their taps. The city is currently evaluating effective treatment methods if contamination does occur, and would continue to monitor the water and inform the public. The city said it has a plan if its water supply does become contaminated, but won’t release it unless the situation arises.

Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said contamination levels would be minimal, and the health risks are low.

Dr. Arthur Frank, a public health professor at Drexel University, said direct exposure to the chemicals can cause various health problems. However, because the hazardous liquid will be diluted in the river, there are no health concerns for Philadelphia residents and no need for bottled water.

“It depends how cautious you want to be. If it was me, I’d be drinking the city water, not being concerned about this,” Frank said. “There are other issues with bottled water. You have the problem of all the disposable bottles that you have to deal with. So, you have to think of this sort of thing more globally.”

FEMA advises any residents facing disasters like this to have one gallon of water per person for three days on hand.

The Coast Guard said Monday that there currently are no impacts to wildlife, and continues to monitor the situation.

However, Drexel University biogeochemistry professor Michelle Gannon said some studies suggest the impacts of chemical contamination might not be evident for up to 15 days.

“I really want to harp on the fact that we need to have consistent environmental monitoring because we won’t be able to tell if there was some kind of impact from a spill or something else like this without knowing what the baseline was,” she said.

Gannon said the chemicals could reduce dissolved oxygen levels, which would make it hard for aquatic life to breathe.

Who’s potentially affected?

If the Water Department were to detect contamination from the chemical spill in the water system, only areas of the city east of the Schuylkill River — excluding part of Northwest Philly — would lose access to clean tap water, according to the city.

That’s because the city draws its drinking water from not only the Delaware River, which was polluted by the spill, but also the Schuylkill River, which flows into the Delaware near the airport.

“The city was very, I think, smart in terms of engineering,” said Gerald Kauffman, who heads the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center.

The city’s Baxter Water Treatment Plant, which draws water from the Delaware, serves North, Northeast, and part of Northwest Philly. Two other treatment plants — Queen Lane and Belmont — serve Southwest, West, and most of Northwest Philly, with water from the Schuylkill. The Water Department’s latest water quality report shows the city mixes water from the two rivers to serve South Philly, Center City, and part of Northwest Philly — and to a lesser extent, West and Southwest Philly.

West and Southwest Philly are labeled “unaffected areas” on the map the city released in response to the incident. Carroll confirmed on Monday that these areas are currently not receiving water from the Baxter treatment plant.

The city’s water intakes in the Schuylkill River are not at risk from the spill, Kauffman said, because the Fairmount Dam would stop any contamination that could make its way from the Delaware into the Schuylkill on the tides.

“This is by design, long ago,” he said. “The city’s intakes along the Schuylkill are freshwater, and there’s a physical barrier between the … tidal water at Fairmount Dam.”

New Jersey American Water, which has an intake in Delran, about one and a half miles from the site of the spill, also says testing has not revealed any presence of the chemical, according to spokesperson Denise Venuti Free. The company issued a voluntary water conservation notice for customers in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties to provide “flexibility around the quantity of water we bring into the facility.”

“We have the ability to store large amounts of raw and treated water, and we are continuously monitoring and testing the source water in the river by our intakes before taking in more water to replenish supplies,” said Venuti Free in an email. “No contaminants have been detected.”

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