Some Residents Skeptical Over Cahokia Heights Mayor’s Pledge That Flooding Will Be Fixed
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Residents in an area of Cahokia Heights whose lives have long been plagued by flooding and raw sewage backing up into their homes due to failing infrastructure are skeptical over recent pledges that the problems will be fixed, even after a recent meeting with the city’s mayor.
Centreville Citizens for Change, a group fighting to get the flooding and sewage issues in their community fixed, met with Curtis McCall Sr. earlier this month, the first time the Cahokia Heights mayor had attended a meeting.
For years, residents in at least 54 homes in the 4.29 square-mile area of the former north Centreville community have struggled with flash flooding and raw sewage in yards and homes that does not drain away. The community is now part of the new city of Cahokia Heights, formed by the merger of Centreville, Cahokia and Alorton.
Earlie Fuse, one of the group’s leaders, said McCall’s presence at a group meeting is a step in the right direction, but he’s still skeptical the issues will be fixed. Fuse’s home has been repeatedly filled with raw sewage. He is currently suing the local government and public officials to fix the issues . He said he’s been promised the problems would be fixed before and has seen little change.
“I’ve heard that 20-something years, so seeing is believing,” Fuse said. “We’ve been slighted so long that you don’t believe anything until it happens because you get your hopes built-up for pork chops and instead we got beans and no bread. So that has been an issue all these years, we have not been getting what we paid for.”
Fuse has lived at Piat Place since 1992 and has dealt with flooding since 1993. Since then the basement of his home has been uninhabitable due to damage from the flooding and has cost him thousands.
Recurring stormwater has submerged his basement “at least four times” with dark brown water. The most recent occurrence was in January 2020. His basement is almost always missing one of its concrete walls, leaving the basement and parts of his home exposed to the elements.
McCall said he’s determined to fix the area’s flooding issues. He said he was happy to listen to the concerns of residents during the meeting this month with Centreville Citizens for Change.
“They had some very good questions and legitimate complaints through the years from the sewers to the roads to the derelict housing,” McCall said. “I thought that their complaints were very legitimate, and I’m going to do the best that I can to address as many of them as possible.”
He’s hopeful that, if awarded, a $22 million federal grant will be able to alleviate the issues. However, he said he wants residents to know that he’ll explore other relief options if the grant isn’t awarded.
“They should have some distrust,” McCall said about residents’ skepticism. “Those citizens have been left out in the cold for over 50 years. They’ve been dealing with either stormwater problems or sewer problems, so the lack of trust that they have in their local officials is, to me, deserved.
“All I can do as their mayor is try to be as honest with them as possible. Some of them did not like the fact that I told them we may have to, if the problem cannot be fixed, look at relocation... It’s my duty as the mayor to look at all alternatives,” he said.
McCall previously served as Centreville’s township supervisor and as chairman of Commonfields of Cahokia’s board, who owned and operated the water and sewage system in Centreville before it was dissolved by voters in April and taken over by the newly formed Cahokia Heights.
Yvette Lyles, another member of the citizens’ group, said she was “shocked” when McCall attended a group meeting over the phone. She said she’s hopeful he can fix the issues, but for her “seeing is believing.”
“If it took government notification and our senators’ notification and awareness of what’s going on to get the local politicians that we put in these positions to come to the meeting, then so be it,” she said, adding that it shouldn’t have taken media and political attention to get local politicians to act on the issues in their community.
“I’m glad we have people who are helping us get to this point, but we shouldn’t have had to go through all of this,” Lyles said.
On June 10, in response to U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to force Cahokia Heights to fix flooding issues in the former Centreville area, McCall said he and other officials in the city are hopeful that the FEMA grant they are seeking will fix many of the flooding and sewer issues.
In January, Centreville, Alorton and Cahokia submitted their $22 million application for the grant to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. The state agency applied for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the former cities’ behalf to fix sewage issues throughout Cahokia Heights. McCall said he expects to be notified of the application status later this month.
Duckworth, Durbin urge EPA to intervene
Duckworth’s and Durbin’s letter to the EPA urged the agency to assist Cahokia Heights in an effort to avoid possible penalties that may be enforced under the Clean Water Act. Those actions could include issuing an administrative order of compliance, an administrative penalty order, or pursuing judicial civil or criminal penalties.
The letter followed the EPA’s notice of potential violation of the Clean Water Act by the Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District.
The agency sent the notice after EPA inspectors observed sanitary sewer overflows and “serious” operations and maintenance issues in the sanitary sewer systems, according to Duckworth’s office.
“After years of the citizens of this district suffering as a result of this dilapidated system, we want to ensure that any opportunities that exist to help the Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District with funding sources and technical assistance in order to come into compliance are promptly identified and utilized,” the senators’ letter states.
In their letter, the senators also urged the EPA to take steps to avoid “further financial burden and suffering” being passed on to the residents of Cahokia Heights.
The two senators have visited the area, both vowing to help residents.
Kavahn Mansouri and DeAsia Paige are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.