How does NJ and PA get its tap water? Confusion after massive chemical spill
Bottled water sold out at stores throughout the greater Philadelphia area over the weekend after thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into a creek feeding into the Delaware River.
The spill has residents throughout the Delaware River Basin in New Jersey and Pennsylvania wondering if their water is safe to drink. It's also raised questions about where people get their drinking water and if there is a time when the water will become unsafe.
What chemical spilled into the Delaware River?
Trinseo is a publicly traded chemical producer that manufactures plastics and latex binders. A facility operated by subsidiary Altuglas in Bristol, Pennsylvania manufactures acrylic resins, which are commonly used in paints. It's located along Mill Creek just north of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge and employs around 110 people.
Late Friday evening, at least 8,100 gallons of a water-based latex finishing solution spilled into Mill Creek. The solution is similar to the acrylic paint used to paint walls in homes and buildings.
Mill Creek feeds directly into the Delaware River, which provides drinking water to over 13 million people throughout New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission.
The river supplies billions of gallons every day to the Garden State. But because the river flows south, officials say it's unlikely that anywhere north of Bristol would be impacted by the spill.
Where does New Jersey get its water?
Most New Jerseyans get their water supplied by a utility company but, like electric and gas utilities, the options available are different depending on the area.
In Mercer County, for example, Hamilton neighborhoods are serviced by either Aqua New Jersey or Trenton Water Works. Aqua NJ is a private company that gets its water from wells up to 2,000 feet deep while the Water Works is a municipal authority taking its water from the Delaware River.
Trenton Water Works serves 225,000 people in Trenton, Ewing, Lawrence, Hamilton, and Hopewell. And while its intake is located along the river, the authority assured its customers that it takes its water from a location north of the spill's location. Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said on social media that the state Department of Environmental Protection advised the city that it was unaffected by the spill.
New Jersey American Water is the largest water provider in the state, serving 2.8 million people. One of the company's intakes is located along the Delaware River in Delran, which is downriver from the spill site.
The company said the facility was unaffected, though a voluntary conservation order was put in place for customers in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties for several days.
“As more time passes and all river samples continue to show no detection of contaminant, we are more confident in drawing source water as needed to replenish our reserves,” NJAW President Mark McDonough said. “We will continue to monitor and test the source water by our intakes to ensure it is appropriate for us to take in.”
Why is there a shifting timeline on safe water?
In updates from the Philadelphia Water Department, residents have been advised that the water is safe to drink through a certain time.
The Philadelphia Water Department said it is continually testing its water for the Baxter treatment plant which takes its water from the Delaware River and serves nearly 60% of the city, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Officials said on Monday that the water would be safe through Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Then on Tuesday, officials gave an update saying the water is safe to drink at least through the end of Wednesday night. Finally, on Tuesday evening, the city confirmed that the water had completely avoided contamination and would be safe going forward.
The constantly shifting timeline caused some confusion and uncertainty among residents who wondered why there appeared to be a time limit on safe drinking water.
PennEnvironment Clean Water Advocate Stephanie Wein told KYW Newsradio that a shifting timeline means the water going through the treatment plants is being "dynamically" tested. Officials reportedly tested at 12 locations repeatedly for any sign of contamination.
Water for Bucks County, Pa.
Located across the river from Mercer and Burlington counties, the lower part of Bucks County includes municipalities such as Falls, Bristol, Lower Makefield, and Bensalem that get their water from the Delaware River.
Utilities serving the area such as the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority, the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority, and Pennsylvania American Water have treatment plants along the river.
As of Tuesday, the county assured residents that samples taken from the river showed no contaminants from the spill.