Philadelphia Water Department Update on Latex Spill

“I want to know what you are doing to make sure we are safe,” demanded my constituent, Ralph. When I stepped into my office on Richmond Street in Bridesburg on Monday morning, Ralph was already there and he wanted answers to the chemical spill at the Trinseo Altugas facility in Bucks county that threatened our water in Philadelphia, and more specifically, our neighborhoods in Northeast Philly.

Ralph wanted to know why we didn’t already have water being shipped in to ensure people’s safety after 8,000+ gallons of contaminants leaked into the Otter Creek and potentially into our water system. He questioned whether he could trust officials who waited until Sunday at noon to alert people to a threat that happened on Friday, a day and a half before. The alert that was sent out via text with minimal explanation or context, sparked panic. Philadelphians fled to local stores, buying up as much water as they could. He demanded accountability.

Ralph, and many others just like you from our communities and the neighborhoods around the City were frightened by the news and the way it was delivered. Rightfully so. You all deserve safety. You deserve information you can trust. Most importantly, you deserve accountability, both from the government and from the company that acted recklessly and endangered so many of your lives and well-being.

As for the core of the first concern, we know now that the safety of the water system is ensured. The contaminants have turned out to have dissipated and may not have presented a serious threat in the first place. For that, I am glad, and grateful to officials in the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). DEP had staff at the facility within hours of the event and was actively supervising testing there and at sites downstream. Similarly, PWD closed intakes at the Baxter Treatment facility, the main source of water for much of Philadelphia including our district. What they observed was that no contaminants had made it into drinking water systems in the area.

We know now that we were and are safe, but that is not what was communicated. The text alerts sent out to Philadelphia residents via the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) at midday Sunday implied a threat to the safety of the water supply that afternoon. The alert sparked panic buying throughout the City. Some of it even turned violent, with people coming to blows in some stores. It is my opinion that we needed to use a more timely and balanced approach to getting the information out sooner and in a way that inspired confidence and trust. We failed to do that – and that is why Ralph was in my office on Monday morning.

Safety and feeling safe in our communities is absolutely necessary for us to function. In an emergency, one place to turn to is the agency that specializes in catastrophes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Food and Water in an Emergency is a simple, easy to read guide in 14 short pages that tells you the basics of what you need to do to survive in these instances. FEMA recommends having a two-week food supply. In addition, each person in the house should have half a gallon of water each day. The FEMA guide describes how to treat water in an emergency as well. It is the kind of information we can trust and have confidence in.

This Trinseo spill is a wakeup call. We are through it now, and we know we are in the clear. In the future, we all need to do a better job of making sure that information is provided to the community in a clear, concise, contextualized and expeditious manner. This kind of communication will help keep everyone safe from both the actual threat, and from the threat of panic and misinformation or misunderstanding. We as the public need to be more diligent and realize that complete information cannot be given in Tweet or an emergency alert text. We have an obligation to ourselves and our family to dig a little deeper to get the full story, which is often only a few clicks away.

Regarding Ralph’s call for accountability, I plan to ask for regular updates from the DEP on its investigation into the Trinseo spill. If necessary, we will hold public hearings to get the information directly from company officials and the government. Then we can begin with the legal actions against those who were reckless or negligent with the public health and safety.