Eastwick residents fight through water concerns for environmental justice

"The flood waters can bring toxic materials up into the areas where people live," an expert said.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Friday, April 21, 2023
Eastwick residents fight through water concerns for environmental justice
Eastwick residents fight through water concerns for environmental justice

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A newly-signed executive order puts a federal focus on environmental justice.

It's a familiar fight for one Philadelphia neighborhood working against what could be toxic water.

It was mid-March when Earl Wilson got the alert that chimed on phones across Philadelphia warning of a chemical spill in the Delaware River.

"I said 'Uh oh, we've got a problem with our drinking water,'" said Wilson of the Eastwick neighborhood.

While fear set in for some, Wilson had a different feeling.

"We were not completely surprised," he said.

That's because he's been fighting for environmental justice for more than a decade. As president of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, one of his main fights involves a different aspect of water: flooding.

The mostly-minority neighborhood was built in a flood zone. It's vulnerable to weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020.

"Water was actually flowing into the basements of all the neighbors ahead of me," recalled Wilson, who has lived in Eastwick for more than 40 years. "(It was) unbelievable!"

That type of flooding is also inevitable, according to Dr. Marilyn Howarth, who works with the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There are two creeks that coalesce in Eastwick," she said of Darby Creek and Cobbs Creek. "When we have a large storm event, so much water accumulates in those creeks and comes together in Eastwick and overflows its banks."

When those floods happen, the concern isn't just over the amount of water. Residents are also concerned about what's in it.

"The flood waters can bring toxic materials up into the areas where people live," said Wilson.

That's because of what the water travels over to get to Eastwick.

"There are a number of areas along the banks of both of those creeks that are industrial," said Howarth, who has done work with the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition.

Those industrial sites include land that was once the largest oil refinery on the Eastern Seaboard. There's also the former site of the Clearview Landfill.

It's why residents have fought so hard for soil tests, some of which have revealed toxic material in the soil on residents' property.

"This area had to be excavated because toxic material was found on the surface area," Wilson said, gesturing towards an open space at 78th Street and Saturn Place.

Residents have also pushed for government-funded solutions.

"We're working with the Army Corps of Engineers," said Wilson.

Concerned neighbors are also keeping an eye on the cleanup process of the former Clearview Landfill, which is now a federally-designated Superfund site that will include a plethora of new trees.

The residents of Eastwick are also now working with a city-funded multi-agency initiative. Eastwick has been designated as an environmental justice community.

"Now we can at least say we have some financial support," said Wilson.

After more than a decade of fighting for environmental justice, the residents of Eastwick are finally getting help. But they know the fight is far from over.

"We, we can't afford to quit," said Wilson. "We're here for the long haul."

Access to safe drinking water is the focus of a new ABC three-part docuseries series: "Our America, Trouble on Tap." It begins streaming on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22 on Hulu and the 6abc app. Episode one of the series will also air Saturday, April 22 at 1 p.m. on 6abc.