How the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Water Department Caused a Massive Panic Among Residents

Last week on Sunday, March 26, The Philadelphia Inquirer posted an article titled “Philly Residents Advised to Drink Bottled Water Sunday Afternoon Following Chemical Spill, Officials Say.” This exact article has since been edited (or deleted), but this was the first I had heard about the Delaware River being contaminated with about 8,100 gallons of a latex finishing solution, which is where most of the city of Philadelphia gets its water supply.

This suggestion from the city reported through The Philadelphia Inquirer caused residents in all parts of the city to buy out all of the bottled water products from grocery stores, convenience stores, and anywhere else that carries water. First, the water was safe until Monday at 11:59 p.m. Then, they said it would be fine until 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Then, they said it would be safe to drink until Wednesday at 11:59 p.m.

After many water tests and a lot of consideration from city officials and experts, the city finally came to a conclusion on Tuesday evening that the city’s water would be safe to drink after all and would not be impacted by the spill.

Clearly, this was a messy situation. The way the city handled it had its ups and downs. While it was an efficient way to get the news out about the situation, using the emergency alert system that we use for things such as Amber Alerts and natural disasters might have been a bit too alarming for the situation at hand, especially since the spill wouldn’t have affected the entire city; only the parts of the city that get water from the Baxter treatment plant. I think they should have made it clear in the alert that only certain parts would be affected and ensured that only the zip codes that could have been impacted received the alert.

Also, the spill had taken place on Friday, March 24, so perhaps officials should have been more timely in communicating that there had been a spill while also being clear about who may be impacted.

However, the city did release a map that showed what zip codes would and would not be affected by the spill, which was very helpful in seeing if you would need to purchase bottled water or not. They also created a text message system to provide updates about the spill, and they even updated social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook to keep city residents in the loop.

Either way, the city did take action and was as transparent and communicative as possible. I just think that maybe next time (knock on wood), they shouldn’t lead with “switch to bottled water” because all of Philadelphia cleaning the shelves of water reminded me of the toilet paper situation when COVID first started.

Gavin Joyce, Account Associate


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