$28M secured for Cahokia Heights sewer issues, flooding in East St. Louis
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) announced $28 million in federal funds to help remedy failing water infrastructure in Cahokia Heights during a press conference on Monday afternoon. The funds include nearly $6 million to repair a sewer line in Cahokia Heights.
Durbin also addressed the impact of flash flooding in both Cahokia Heights and East St. Louis after heavy rainfalls fell across the region last month. The senator has also requested the help of the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help analyze the causes of persistent flooding in the area.
“The problem isn’t just water,” Durbin said. “The problem is history. When you take a look at the way the American Bottoms land is laid out, you realize it once was the bottom of the Mississippi River, so, for those of us who are in this area, we’re living in a swimming pool, and when the water started coming in and staying in our pool, it complicated our lives in so many different directions.”
Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said repairs to the sewer trunk line will extend from Mousette and Jerome Lane to I-57 and Illinois 3 and continue southbound on Water Street and Levin Drive. He said the project will take about three to five years to complete.
“What we’re doing today has taken over 50 years to get done,” McCall said.
The senator is the latest public official to announce funding for the city. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a $21 million grant — with $9.9 immediately available — to fix Cahokia Heights’ wastewater collection system. The agreement for the state funding includes a requirement for the city to be transparent with residents about how they’re spending the money.
“This is the largest investment in history in solving the problems of the American Bottoms,” Durbin said. “Will it solve all the problems? No, it won’t. There will still be more, but we’re working on it until we get it done.”
Flooding in Cahokia Heights
Residents in the former area of Centreville have had to deal with extensive flooding and sewer issues for decades, with minimal help from local government. The village merged with Cahokia and Alorton to officially become Cahokia Heights last year.
Some members of Centreville Citizens for Change, a grassroots organization of residents demanding help for the sewage crisis, are listed as plaintiffs in two lawsuits against the city and other entities for their alleged failure to alleviate the problem. Mayor McCall is listed as a defendant on one of those suits.
Patricia Greenwood, who lives on Piat Place, said the new funding sounds promising, but doesn’t thoroughly address the effect of flooding and sewage on her home. She said McCall and his team visited her home to help with flooding damage in wake of recent flash flooding, but she said she needs more help.
“It sounds really good, but what are they going to do about the repairs on our homes?” Greenwood, 72, said.
She said her home is still filled with mold and the floors are detached from the walls. The recent flooding has exacerbated the problem. Greenwood also is concerned about the money being spent correctly.
“Repairs are being made, (and) our homes are steadily crumbling apart,” she said. “When the (sewer) repairs are all said and done, we won’t have a home to live in because it’ll be gone.”
McCall said more than 50 homes in Cahokia Heights have been damaged due to recent flooding. He said fixing the homes is possible, but it’s going to take a regional-wide effort.
“We have some residents that live right outside of the Harding Ditch. They need to be bought out, but those are hard decisions,” McCall said.
East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III said he’ll work with Cahokia Heights to find resources to thoroughly serve residents affected by flooding. The neighborhood along Terrace Drive and Mary Avenue in East St. Louis was among the hardest-hit areas in the Metro East..
“It’s time that our city and our region take a systematic approach at how this drainwater comes into our cities and contributes to this flooding that our residents are having,” he said.
Is it enough?
Nicole Nelson is a legal advocate for Centreville Citizens for Change and a lawyer for Equity Legal Services, one of the organizations that filed lawsuits against the city on behalf of residents. Nelson said the first lawsuit, filed in June of 2020, is set for trial in October. The second one, filed in July of last year, is still in the discovery phase. She said she understands that funding is a crucial first step for solving the issue, but actively engaging the residents affected by it is just as essential.
Nelson said a private meeting residents had with Durbin on Monday morning included just one resident from Centreville Citizens for Change.
“In order to really get true community engagement, there’s go to be a willingness to engage with the community as a whole to get a good cross section of an understanding of what’s going on in the community and everyone’s voices,” Nelson said.
McCall said involving residents in how funding will be used is a required as part of the agreement.
“They will be a part of the team, letting the citizens know when the projects will be started, when they will end, so they will be there on day one as a part of this process,” he said.
Nelson said state leaders prioritizing meetings with elected officials and the residents they choose is a pattern that neglects the voices of those who were the first to raise awareness to flooding and sewage issues.
“It’s great to do these press conferences, and it’s great that all this money is coming in,” she said, “but make no mistake, all this money is coming in because residents mobilized.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.