Council Committee Holds Hearing on March’s Water Emergency

The Joint Committees on Transportation & Utilities and the Environment met to hear testimony from city departments regarding the March 26th spill of industrial chemicals into Otter Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. A portion of the city’s residents draw their drinking water from the Delaware.

Councilmember Anthony Phillips, who originally introduced the hearing resolution, said the hearing was to ensure the city had established best practices in the event drinking water was threatened in the future.

Councilmember Curtis Jones lamented the lack of communication regarding the crisis, saying that the hysteria after the spill could have been avoided. Jones further asked why the city does not have cases of water in city warehouses specifically for this type of emergency.

Mike Carroll, Deputy Managing Director for Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, testified that as soon as the Otter Creek spill was made known to Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, city officials worked “around the clock to understand, communicate, and respond to the event.”

Carroll said the city learned of the spill at 12:27 AM on Saturday, March 25th.

Regarding the way the situation was communicated to the public, Carroll described a confusing situation in which the city was trying to be completely transparent while not causing undue alarm.

“The Administration began sharing information with the public before all the relevant information was at hand,” Carroll said. “During the initial assessment, the only thing that was clear was the material could not be physically contained.”

Carroll said, at the time, it appeared the chemical plume would reach the Baxter Water Treatment Plant at 6 AM Saturday morning, necessitating the closure of the plant’s intakes. Compounding the confusion was the unavailability of contaminant testing, which did not reach Philadelphia until 7:30 PM that Saturday.

Carroll lamented the messages issued by the city on Sunday afternoon did not provide citizens with much time to react.

In response to a question from Councilmember Phillips, Office of Emergency Management Director Dominick Mireles said the city does not have the capacity for large-scale reserve water supply storage.

“To have a three-day supply of bottled water for every resident of Philadelphia would cost about $10 million,” Mireles said. “And that stock would need to be (replenished) every two years.”

Mireles said the greater issue was a lack of warehouse space to store such a large quantity of water. Other options included strategic partnerships with retailers, bulk-rate purchasing, and asking soda manufacturers to bottle water when needed.

Maurice Sampson, the Eastern Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action, said the best way to prepare is for people in the city to store water themselves. Sampson said if people fill their own water storage devices, they can have a week’s worth of water on hand should an event like the chemical spill happen again.

“Why am I being told to go out and buy water instead of filling my own containers,” Sampson said. “In twenty minutes, I could have (all the water I needed) to get through the crisis.”

Our reporters sit through hours of city council meetings, dig through piles of documents, and ask tough questions other media overlook. Because we’re committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty crisis — and challenging those who sustain it. If you think this work is important too, please support our journalism.

We’re counting on readers like you.


We monitor Philly's local halls of power to bring you the news you need to know.

City Council News No One Else Is Covering. 

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.