New Lawsuit Filed Over Chronic Flooding, Sewage Issues In Former Centreville Area
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Three organizations representing the group Centreville Citizens for Change filed another lawsuit Tuesday against Commonfields of Cahokia and Cahokia Heights in hopes litigation under the Clean Water Act will force local government agencies to fix decades-long flooding problems.
The lawsuit alleges Commonfields of Cahokia, a water and sewer utility, has been discharging raw sewage into the community in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Equity Legal Services, Earthjustice and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Illinois. Besides stopping the discharges, the lawsuit seeks damages for the ``many harms” that the sewage and flooding issues have caused to residents and their homes in the old Centreville area of Cahokia Heights.
Curtis McCall Sr., the new mayor of Cahokia Heights and former chairman of the board at Commonfields, said he was unaware of the second lawsuit and couldn’t comment further. He said the city had not been notified of the new lawsuit.
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. The community is now part of the new city of Cahokia Heights, formed by the merger of Centreville, Cahokia and Alorton.
The area is predominantly Black and low-income, and lawmakers, including US Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and IL Gov. J.B. Pritzker said failure to fix the flooding is environmental racism.
The lawsuit is the second to be filed against Commonfields of Cahokia, and this time includes more than 24 residents of the area as plaintiffs.
The first lawsuit, which was filed in June, named Commonfields, local governments and officials as defendants, saying they are responsible for failing to fix years of flooding and sewer issues. It asked the court to stop the defendants from depositing or diverting stormwater onto their properties and to replace some of the village’s pump or lift stations within 30 days. The suit also asks for the installation of new sewer lines where needed as well as a monitor to make sure the changes are being made.
During a press conference Tuesday, several members of the citizen’s group said no fixes have been made since that lawsuit was filed, except for clearing of a nearby canal. However, that fix was done by the Metro East Sanitary District and not Commonfields of Cahokia.
Residents of Cahokia Heights voted to dissolve Commonfields of Cahokia in April, meaning its 7,000 customers in the three towns would be absorbed into the new city’s services. However, Nicole Nelson, of Equity Legal Services, Inc., one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said Commonfields hasn’t begun the legal process of dissolving.
She added that when and if Commonfields is dissolved, Cahokia Heights will take on the responsibility, something she said: “they have made clear.”
McCall, who is a defendant in the first lawsuit, has vowed that the flooding and sewage problems will be fixed, noting that it is one of his administration’s top priorities. He had hoped a $22 million FEMA grant the city ended up not receiving would be a way to fix the issues, but pledged to find other financing if that failed.
Residents say they’re trapped in Centreville
Yvette Lyles, a member of the citizens’ group who has lived in the area for 28 years, said the conditions in the area are “inhumane.”
“The American Dream was to work on a home and enjoy your home, not to become entrapped and enslaved by home repairs,” Lyles said. ”We all need help and we deserve it. We live in the United States of America and we deserve to live like everyone else does.”
The new lawsuit asks for damages for the residents, something the first lawsuit did not request. Lyles said she and many others can no longer afford the persistent repairs caused by the repeated flooding.
Mary Anthony, who has lived in Centreville since she was 15, said she had hoped that the newly formed Cahokia Heights government would hasten the process of fixing the sewage and infrastructure issues, but so far she hasn’t seen any changes.
“I feel like when they said we were going to be under Cahokia Heights that things were going to be different, and there was going to be a change and we have not seen that change,” Anthony said. “We need a change, we need help. We need someone to step in and fix the problem.”
Anthony’s 80-year-old mother also lives nearby in a home with a foundation that is so dilapidated, she said animals often sneak into the home. Stories like Anthony’s and Lyles’ are common among residents, some who have said they had to repair their homes dozens of times for thousands of dollars.
‘Endless pleas’ unanswered, lawyers say
EarthJustice Managing Attorney Debbie Chizewer said during the press conference that residents’ please have largely been ignored and that the lawsuit filed Tuesday was in response to the lack of action by local government agencies.
“Despite endless pleas from the members of Centreville Citizens for Change and this legal team, no government entity has solved this problem,” she said. “No community should be expected to be able to live without a working sewage system.”
Chizewer added while the problem is most prevalent in the Centreville area, its effects reach as far as the Mississippi River.
“For more than a decade Commonfields has failed to maintain its sewage system,” she said. “As a result sewage flows into yards and into homes, and sewage is also flowing in the tributaries of the Mississippi River.”
Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.