March 29, 2023 Leigh Martinez

In Drinking Water Scare, Philly Should Stay Mad at its Complacent Leaders

Statement from PennFuture

The Trinseo chemical spill was the latest test on whether Philadelphia’s leaders could protect its residents from environmental harm and they failed. Instead of providing transparency, confidence, and help, they gave residents ambiguity, doubt, and chaos. 


In a few short days, trust in our drinking water system was broken. While the Coast Guard, Water Department staff, and state and federal environmental engineers worked to assess and manage the chemical spill to ensure it didn’t enter our water pipes, our leaders botched their duty to develop a sound plan and engage with the public.  


It’s critical that the city’s leaders take swift and bold action to mend this trust. To begin this process, Philadelphia City Council, Mayor Jim Kenney, and the Philadelphia Water Department should do the following:


  1. The Environmental Protection Agency should step in swiftly to independently assess Philadelphia's drinking water to reassure residents who have lost faith in the city's pronouncement that it is safe to drink.
  2. The Philadelphia Water Department should procure an independent risk assessment of industrial activity upstream of its water intakes so that meaningful state and city monitoring and watchdog efforts can develop so that these environmental disasters don’t catch the city flat-footed again.
  3. Philadelphia City Council should hold hearings under oath so the public can learn more about the state and city’s response to the chemical spill, including an understanding of why residents weren’t notified of a potential drinking water problem for 36 hours.
  4. The Philadelphia Water Department should waive its service fee for April to defray some of the cost borne by residents due to the city's poor communications, including the chaotic run on bottled water and lost business at restaurants.
  5. Lastly, Mayor Jim Kenney needs to hold himself accountable for the chaos and mistrust that he and his team caused. Deputy Managing Director Mike Carroll and Water Commissioner Randy Hayman were ill-equipped to manage the crisis with the general public. Ultimately, the buck stops with the Mayor. He should make administrative changes to ensure that the right experts, communicators, and managers are in place to lead the city through environmental crises.


Nevertheless, these calls to action do not signal that Trinseo is without fault. Their infrastructure failed, and state and federal regulators will investigate the cause. Although that process will take some time, it's clear that this facility has a history of problems that should be reflected in any enforcement taken to hold this corporate polluter accountable.


After decades of disinvestment and deregulation, more and more environmental disasters are occurring, and Philadelphia needs leaders who will finally take ownership of this reality. 


For many in the city, this crisis is just the latest injustice in an ongoing series, and complacency here will only multiply that ongoing harm. Mistrust in our drinking water is a deep cut to the many residents who are already beset by anxiety because of ongoing environmental problems such as asbestos in our schools, lead in our water pipes, and pollution in our air.


This is not fair or just.


Philadelphia needs its leaders to step up and take on its growing list of environmental problems. We should not settle for subpar management. Stand up, protect our home, and give Philadelphians the respect they deserve.