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Chemical Plant That Polluted Delaware River Forced My School to Evacuate in 2007

Who will guarantee our safety in the future when this inevitably happens again? Because it will, and it already has.

The Delaware River as seen from Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 2023.

Chemical Plant That Polluted Delaware River Forced My School to Evacuate in 2007

Who will guarantee our safety in the future when this inevitably happens again? Because it will, and it already has.

The Delaware River as seen from Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 2023.

The same chemical complex that forced my elementary school to evacuate has now threatened to poison my water.

I found this out the hard way. Lying in bed, the news is blaring in the background as my mom fervently tries staying up to date with the Philadelphia Water Department’s announcements after the tap water advisory. The 8,000-12,000 gallons of latex emulsion that leaked from a burst pipe at a Trinseo chemical plant in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania, has made their way into the Delaware River, threatening Philadelphia’s water supply. But I’m still contemplating showering — maybe just for 5 minutes, just to get the grime off of me? Surely latex painting fluids can do that, right?

Amber alerts are blaring on an hourly basis, and I’m coming to the stoic realization of what “no tap water use” actually means. That means using bottled water — but it’s sold out in nearby stores. It means no cooking, which surely we can handle in the beginning of Ramadan. It means showering before 3:30 pm, because according to the Philadelphia Water Department, this is when the chemicals aren’t going through the pipes. That’s the one I can’t get over, because how could you possibly shower in water that you can’t drink? So I do my research, and during my doom scrolling, I realize this is not the first time the chemical giant has directly impacted me.

In 2007, a pipe burst at the chemical plant, leaking gallons of chemicals, and a fire ensued, growing closer and closer to Mary Devine Elementary School. My school was evacuated, and we were bused to the local high school to finish out the rest of the day. I was in the first grade.

At that time, the plant was operating under a different company. The more digging I did, the more I realized that the former Rohm and Haas chemical company is infamous for various chemical spills and pipe bursts. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated the plant’s release of 1,760 pounds of methyl methacrylate — a chemical compound which causes numbness in the nervous system and skin rashes, among other effects — as the company attempted to move the chemicals to a separate storage tank. The EPA also identified a separate release of butyl acrylate and ethyl acrylate in 2012 — two of the three chemicals found in the mixture that spilled into the Delaware River last week. As recently as 2021, the Coast Guard detected a leak from a Trinseo pipeline involving an “unknown quantity” of methyl methacrylate.

This is how it goes: These crises follow you everywhere, haunting you like a nightmare you can’t escape. Just two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a woman impacted by the Red Hill crisis in Hawaii, who recounted blackout spells and her dogs’ being poisoned by (and dying from) what she now knows was from her drinking water months before the U.S. Navy announced a leak in its fuel storage facility in Honolulu. Longtime environmental justice activist Mari Copeny was recently seen crying on television discussing one of her many philanthropy efforts to provide toys for children in Flint, Michigan. The city’s service line replacement program has seen various extensions and deadlines, with groups suing the government last year to ensure new deadlines for completion of the replacement of all lead and galvanized water service lines.

Red Hill. Flint. East Palestine. Jackson. Philadelphia. When does it all end?

And the answer is: it doesn’t. Because it is an active policy decision to prioritize the ease of private institutions over the safety, health and overall well-being of the people. Our government ensures that the wealth these conglomerates accumulate isn’t interrupted by the burden of safety procedures, cumbersome regulations and “expensive” security measures. Officials will always choose train derailments, burst pipes, and oil and chemical spills over the people. They will always choose military pollution and illegal waste dumping and toxic leaks over the people. And so these crises will always find you right where you are, just like they’ve found me. So every water crisis — every environmental crisis — will be, and has always been, your problem.

On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that our drinking water is safe: The Baxter Water Treatment Plant, it seems, does not contain traces of spilled chemicals. “This is a result of the swift action, caution, and preparedness of City Departments and partners as well as their commitment to ensuring the well-being and health of all Philadelphians,” Kenney said in a press conference. He even pulled out a glass of water to drink on camera, a theatrical choreography I liken to President Obama’s actions in Flint.

But even this display hasn’t fooled us. People throughout eastern Pennsylvania are still on edge, wary of statements by city officials and hesitant to go back to their taps. We will always wonder how safe we will be, and for how long. Who’s to say this won’t happen again, and what if officials are wrong? Even if this is true, who will guarantee residents’ safety in the future when this inevitably happens again? Because it will, and it already has.

Note: The headline and text of the article have been edited to clarify that the Philadelphia Water Department has not detected chemicals from the incident in the city’s drinking water.

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