Water Crisis in Philly Highlights Our Broken National System

An industrial chemical spill upstream of the city’s water intakes is poised to contaminate the water supply. If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have.

A Delaware River canal near Philadelphia


Thomas Hengge/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Learn More: What's Happening in Philadelphia

On March 26, Philadelphia announced that residents should stock up on bottled water because an industrial chemical spill several miles upstream of the city’s water intakes was poised to contaminate the water supply. The spill reportedly included at least 8,000 gallons—or an “unknown amount”—of chemicals, including butyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, and methyl methacrylate, which the city dutifully explained are “used in making products such as headlight covers.” Gee, exactly what residents wanted to be drinking. Store shelves quickly emptied, understandably, and residents who didn’t instantly join the panic complained that they couldn’t find bottled water anywhere.

If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have. And it’s not Best Picture material. Seems like only yesterday that in East Palestine, Ohio, just a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania border, a train derailment spilled thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals including, yes, the Philadelphia favorite butyl acrylate, along with a toxic soup of other chemicals, such as vinyl chloride that officials lit on fire to avoid an explosion, or so they said. The long-term effects of the East Palestine disaster on local public and private drinking water supplies must be evaluated.

Also recently in the news was the Jackson, Mississippi, rolling drinking water crisis brought on by a decrepit water system and flooding of the city’s water plant. And who can forget the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where an ill-advised switch to using the highly corrosive water from a local river without proper treatment, a strategy to save a few bucks, resulted in a massive lead contamination crisis when the water corroded the local, aging lead pipes and released contaminated water to tens of thousands of homes. An added threat came when at least a dozen people, and possibly far more, reportedly died due to a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, also linked to the Flint water supply. And before that, there was the massive spill several years ago just upstream of Charleston, West Virginia, of the coal-washing chemical methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), which resulted in serious drinking water contamination and a “do not drink” order for the city’s water supply for days.

But our drinking water problem is not limited to a handful of cities that have emergency water crises. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a historic announcement that it was proposing to regulate six commonly found toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water supplies nationwide. What captured relatively little attention is that EPA estimated that up to 94 million Americans have these chemicals in their drinking water at levels exceeding the proposed new standards. Many more of us have these same chemicals in our water at levels below the proposed new standards, but at concentrations that still significantly exceed the amount that EPA says is safe. It’s important to keep in mind that while EPA’s proposal is welcome and crucially important, the agency is proposing to regulate just six of the more than 12,000 toxic forever chemicals in the PFAS family. The vast majority of these forever chemicals are not tested for, and all are unregulated.

And of course, PFAS and periodic chemical spills are not our only drinking water threats. Lead contamination afflicts the water systems used by more than 180 million people, and other contaminants, ranging from arsenic to cancer-causing disinfection byproducts, also contaminate tens or hundreds of millions of Americans’ tap water. The United Nations has declared that there is an “imminent” water crisis globally, in both developed and developing nations, due to pollution and climate change, which the Jackson situation and other early indicators show is no empty threat.

Deneka Samuel runs the tap at her kitchen sink while under a boil-water advisory during the Jackson water crisis in 2022.


Carlos Barria/Reuters

What are the common threads here?

  1. Our nation’s water infrastructure is old, outdated, and often falling apart. An NRDC 50-state survey estimated there are 9 to 12 million lead service lines (like those in Flint) contaminating water across the country in all 50 states. Very few water systems have installed updated technology like deep-bed granular-activated carbon (as did Cincinnati, Ohio, due to repeated upstream spills), or reverse osmosis treatment that can remove these contaminants. Most drinking water systems in the United States continue to use outdated water treatment technology that came into use around World War I. What other industry continues to rely on the same technology our great-grandparents used? Water systems must be updated; the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law made a historic $30 billion down payment on this, but the total cost to fix our water supplies is estimated by industry experts at more than $1 trillion. The federal, state, and local governments must make a major commitment over the next decade to invest in major upgrades of our water treatment and distribution systems.

  2. The Safe Drinking Water Act is broken and must be fixed to require strong health-protective standards and to protect source waters. This law was originally enacted in 1974 and beefed up due to EPA’s failure to control contaminants in 1986, but unfortunately, Congress weakened the law in an antiregulatory fervor in 1996. Because of the weakening, EPA hasn’t issued a new standard using its unregulated-contaminant regulatory authority in nearly 30 years. That EPA will finally control six toxic forever chemicals in the coming year will be a welcome, even historic, development, but tens of millions of us are drinking other unregulated contaminants. In addition, Congress has never provided meaningful protections of the source water used by our drinking water supplies, as the Charleston, Philadelphia, national PFAS contamination crisis, and other examples highlight. The law must be fixed.

  3. Polluters are neither held fully accountable nor vigorously regulated. As these examples—in Charleston, East Palestine, and Philadelphia, as well as the spreading nationwide toxic forever chemical disaster among so many others—tell us, those responsible for polluting our water supplies are not being effectively regulated. Rail safety rules were already lax and weakened during the Trump administration. Chemical companies are not required to ensure that their products are manufactured, stored, and used safely, and spill prevention programs are woefully inadequate. EPA has been regularly approving new PFAS chemicals, often with hardly any information on their toxicity or use, and EPA and states rarely crack down on the chemical companies that have contaminated millions of peoples’ drinking water and communities. And when corporations pollute our environment, they rarely face full accountability for the harms they have caused to the environment and the people who live and sometimes die with that contamination. Environmental injustices abound in low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by toxic pollution; drinking water contamination, in particular, hits these communities hardest. We need to strengthen water pollution protections (and not roll back these protections as many fear the Supreme Court may be about to do) and invigorate Superfund and other laws—and enforce them—to hold polluters fully accountable when they pollute our communities, water supplies, and environment.

Without reforms such as these, we are all condemned to watch reruns and sequels of the same bad movie that we’ve seen before. It’s time that we take these problems seriously and protect our communities and the health of our families and future generations. 

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