PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Philly Spill Scare: This Is Why We Fight

by Emma Bast, Staff Attorney
Delaware River near Worthington State Park. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Last week, Philadelphians dealt with the fallout of a chemical spill into the Delaware River, their drinking water source. By mid-week, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and the city announced that the chemical plume—and thus the immediate danger—had passed and that the city’s drinking water had tested safe. PennFuture and others have rightly and roundly criticized the response of City officials as a case study of what not to do in a potential environmental crisis, so today, I’m here to talk about something else.


Now that the initial emergency has passed, I cannot help but think: “This is exactly why we fight for the environmental protections we have and fight to make them stronger.” 


We have many unanswered questions about the spill—Why did the city wait so long to tell folks? How sensitive is the testing that PWD is doing? How will they do better next time?—but one of the things that seems true is that the city, at least, found out about the spill in time to shut off the water intakes from the Delaware. This wasn’t the result of corporate benevolence or some happy accident but of some (largely invisible) protections:


Folks should know first that this report happened because it was required to do so: Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law, 25 Pa. Code § 91.33(a), requires any polluter who spills a substance that could endanger downstream users to report the spill to DEP immediately. 


What kind of substance counts? The adage that “the dose makes the poison” applies here: DEP has issued guidance explaining that even substances that might generally be non-toxic (milk, for example) should be reported if it is spilled in large enough quantity. 


So if your toddler spills a cup of milk in the Schuylkill, that’s fine. If a truck tanker of milk tips over into the Wiss, that’s another matter entirely! If I went to walk through the Wiss and the water was white and opaque, I’d want to know what was going on and whether my family was safe. Under our current rules, I could find out. 


Folks should know next that state Senator Gene Yaw (R Dist. 23) has re-upped efforts from last year to weaken these reporting rules that keep us safe. The “Let Them Spill” bills from the 2021-22 session (HB 1842 and SB 545) have reared their heads again for the 2022-23 session as SB 286. The bill’s sponsor claims they are making the reporting requirements more straightforward. The reality is that the legislation would serve only to make life easier for polluters by letting the polluters themselves decide when and how much of a chemical is a problem. 


The bill does this by hiding behind the “numeric water quality criteria” established by the state while conveniently ignoring that (as the Inquirer reported) the industry has been resisting any new chemicals added to water quality criteria for decades.


Let’s play out how Philly’s water scare could have gone under this new scheme: 

The chemicals released into the Delaware—ethyl acrylate, methyl methacrylate, butyl acrylate, and Styrene—aren’t currently in the state’s water quality criteria. Moreover, the new wording would allow polluters to “take into account any control and remedial measures.” 

The result? 

The Bristol plant operators could decide that they had shut the leak down early enough that “only” 8,000 gallons of the chemical had spilled and that these chemicals don’t have a reportable requirement anyway. And then, they simply could choose not to report it, and none of the thousands of people in multiple states who use the water would have known.  


Clean, clear, safe water requires clean, clear information sharing. Because of the reporting requirements that protect us right now, the system in the back of the house appears to have worked, letting the various authorities act in time to save Philly’s drinking water from the worst harm. It isn’t hard to imagine a different outcome.  


The best way to keep us safe is to keep these environmental problems from happening in the first place. But to the extent that accidents happen, the next best thing is ensuring that citizens and authorities know about them and have all of the information they need. 


We dodged the worst this time, but this could happen again. Industry and other polluters will not keep us safe simply out of the goodness of their hearts. Accidents happen. I fight so that when the next spill comes, we will know, we will better understand what the threats are to our community, and we will be able to stay safe.

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up