Last month I included some links about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and resulting chemical leak. At the time, I remember feeling quite chuffed that I had just taken a disaster management course that explained how different state and federal agencies worked together in the event of an environmental emergency. Neat, I thought inanely, and continued to indefinitely postpone putting together my own household emergency plan and supply kit.
Welp, I was on the train back from a beautiful weekend in Virginia when I got the first message not to drink tap water in Philly. (Contaminants? In my water?)
On Friday, March 25, shortly before midnight, a chemical facility called Trinseo Altuglas
in Bristol Township spilled between 8,100 and 12,000 gallons of a water-based latex
solution into Otter Creek, which connects to the Delaware River. The Philadelphia
Water Department reported the incident to the Delaware Valley Early Warning System
to alert water users in the Delaware River, and tracked the movement of the chemical
plume to predict when or if it would reach Philadelphia, updating the predicted times
daily. An advisory was issued to Philadelphia residents living in zip codes served by
Baxter drinking water treatment plant on the Delaware River. (Two other drinking water
treatment plants, Queens Lane and Belmont, are located on the Schuylkill and not
affected by the spill.) Per the city briefings on Sunday and Monday, water from within
and around the river and treatment plant was sampled and analyzed (via infrared
spectroscopy and gas chromatography testing) for traces of butyl acrylate, ethyl
acrylate, and methyl methacrylate. After the initial warning to drink bottled water, the City released one or two updates each day assuring us that no contaminants had been found and that it was not necessary to switch to bottled water, but there is not a great deal of trust between the City and residents, so there was a shortage of bottled water in local stores. On Tuesday, March 28, both PWD and the utility company Aqua announced that Philadelphia water is safe to drink and use.
So… wow. Lots to unpack here. For some folks I know who work in water, this is a success story: the early warning system worked as it was supposed to, and testing shows that the drinking water was not contaminated.
But for many residents, it was a confusing and frustrating few days. One problem was the first message that went out: it suggested bottled water “out of an abundance of caution,” but no information about how much water was needed for how long. Some residents were getting more detailed updates from the water department, but as a renter whose landlord pays the water bill (as is common in my city), I heard nothing and found little from visiting websites for the water department, emergency management department, or environmental protection department. I felt a little helpless trying to piece together information on Sunday, and as a result, I have made two resolutions: to sign up for emergency alerts, and to compile an emergency kit including distilled water, per FEMA instructions. Many cities and states will have their own guidance prepared for regional hazards, so find out what emergency management looks like in your hometown.
If you’re thinking, Yeah sure, but what does this chemical spill have to do with climate change? For one, climate change means that environmental emergencies happen more frequently, as known issues like wildfires and hurricanes intensify, and unusual weather extremes like heat waves and freezes impact areas that don’t have the infrastructure to prepare for them. Get a kit together! It won’t hurt and it will almost certainly come in handy.
For another, spills like the one here in Philly and the derailment in Ohio are directly correlated to deregulation. Environmental regulations are supposed to help lower carbon emissions as well as keep rivers relatively free of chemicals and stuff we don’t want to drink or shower in.
Let’s look at this event from a regional perspective:
A short history of (the many) recent environmental mishaps along the Delaware River (Billy Penn, March 29, 2023)
Or chronological perspective: “There have already been 50 chemical spills or fires in the U.S. this year, and it’s only March.”
A spill outside Philadelphia adds to the growing list of chemical accidents this year (Grist, March 27, 2023)
On March 20, the IPCC released the final part of their report. Whenever the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a new climate report, the subsequent news coverage can feel overwhelming. Here are some links to help contextualize the report and its findings.
The report itself, including a press release, headlines, and a summary for policymakers: AR6 Synthesis Report (IPCC)
The Latest IPCC Report: What is it and why does it matter? (The Nature Conservancy, March 20, 2023)
Climate Central prepares evidence-based talking points for media reporting on the report. Climate Solutions in Every State (Climate Central, March 15, 2023)
The IPCC makes it clear: fossil fuels must go (HEATED, March 21, 2023)
The IPCC Report, Climate Litigation Wins and More (Drilled, March 25, 2023)
The urgency of the IPCC report is part of why it’s so disappointing that the US is like… more oil!
Willow is not just an “environmentalist” concern (HEATED, March 15, 2023)
Solving the Climate Problem, One Barrel of Oil at a Time (Drilled, March 17, 2023)
Also at Drilled–this is a really great evidence-based look at how oil economies tend to have more poverty and income disparity than their neighbors.
Happy Earth Day: Let’s Move Past the “Moral Case” for Fossil Fuels (Drilled, April 21, 2023)
In other news, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two Black representatives for joining a protest for gun control reform. (They were both unanimously reinstated by their respective home counties.) One of the two, Justin Pearson, is a representative of my hometown Memphis–where he has been a voice for environmental activism.
Environmental injustice in Tennessee (HEATED, April 11, 2023)
How Memphians defeated a pipeline (Broken Ground, Southern Environmental Law Center, October 10, 2022)
Exxon’s new ‘advanced recycling’ plant raises environmental concerns (The Guardian, April 10, 2023)
I include this here, rather than above, because it’s got some fascinating explanation of the lifecycle and chemical components of PVC.
On Vinyl: A brief history of East Palestine’s toxic train disaster (Orion, April 2023)
A useful word and rhetorical strategy to know:
Big Oil’s favorite way to lie: paltering (HEATED, April 6, 2023)
This is always interesting to me: in my climate change coursework, we learned about climate proxies, which are different references scientists can use to piece together the climate history: tree rings, otoliths, ice cores, packrat middens, and weather logs among others. Independently, those proxies each have their limits, but cross-referenced they can offer pretty solid information about global and regional climate trends. This is the story of one proxy, but the one that’s more accessible for us than most.
To Whom It May Concern: 300-Year-Old Letters Reveal Hurricanes’ Long-Term Rise (Hakai Magazine, March 30, 2023)
A Novel is Like a Camp: What Fiction Can Teach Us About Surviving the Slow Apocalypse
My ecofiction community blew up about this one: we are not all in agreement about how useful or accurate this perspective is. I found it sort of wishy-washy, for all the fuss, but I do appreciate the paragraph noting that we are not currently living in speculation about climate change; we are living in the reality of it.
Climate Fiction Won’t Save Us (Esquire, April 19, 2023)
Video: Climate Spiral (1880-2022) (NASA, February 21, 2023)
Free online tool helps people identify tree species that will thrive in a warmer climate (Yale Climate Connections, March 10, 2023)
Falling Fruit is a map of forageable plants in urban areas around the world. I am really excited to finally make the most of mulberry season–I haven’t known where to look–and to eat some new-to-me plants. (Necessary caveat: You want to be really certain about the plant ID before you eat something you forage, and maybe do some research about how to prepare said plant.)
For more: This Website Reimagines Cities as Foraging Utopias (Gastro Obscura, April 5, 2023)