© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

Centreville’s Sewage And Drainage Problems Put Community At Risk

Walter Byrd checks on an overflowing sewer grate next to his home in Centreville. Like dozens of other residents, Byrd has raw sewage seeping through his yard. Jan. 27, 2020
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
/
Walter Byrd checks on an overflowing sewer grate next to his home in Centreville. Like dozens of other residents, Byrd has raw sewage seeping through his yard.

CENTREVILLE — At least twice a day, Walter Byrd checks on the pumps on his yard. 

Like dozens of residents in the Metro East city of Centreville, Byrd has raw sewage seeping through his yard. A person can’t bear to stand in his yard during the summer because it smells like a “hog pen,” he said.

The city and its sewer utility, Commonfields of Cahokia, have neglected the sewer systems for decades. When there’s a heavy rain, the water often has nowhere to drain and floods parts of town.

The St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency last year sent rescue boats to help residents stranded in their homes. The flooding and overflowing sewage have repeatedly damaged residents’ homes. Some have spent their life’s savings to fix their homes and use bottled water because they are worried that their drinking water is contaminated.

Byrd, 63, has spent about $30,000 in the past decade replacing his floors and repairing his plumbing system. For years, he’s asked city and utility officials for help, but they’ve done little to fix the sewer system. 

“I got tired of this mess coming in on me,” Byrd said. “It’s tearing up the house. I just go into the backyard and start crying. Who’s going to help me?”

Many residents in Centreville have water pouring out of the sewer system and into their yards. More than 50 families have been working with lawyers to try to get the sewers fixed. Jan. 27, 2020
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Many residents in Centreville have water pouring out of the sewer system and into their yards. More than 50 families have been working with lawyers to try to get the sewers fixed.

A neglected community

Most of Centreville’s approximately 5,000 residents are black. Many are in their 60s and 70s and depend on retirement savings and Social Security. Byrd’s family is among 54 in Centreville seeking help from lawyers to get the sewers fixed. The lawyers have spent two years investigating the sewer systems to determine who is responsible for these problems, said Nicole Nelson, executive director of Equity Legal Services. 

“I think money hasn’t been allocated to the infrastructure,” Nelson said. “When you have a poor black town that’s sitting in a county that has other municipalities that have other resources, it’s easy to forget about them.” 

The city of Centreville has received more than $1.5 million in federal community development block grants in the last 27 years to improve streets, sanitary pump stations and other infrastructure, according to St. Clair County officials. However, the street drainage and pump station projects that Centreville officials have requested funds for since 2014 have been located in the southern part of the city. 

Most of the residents who report sewer and flooding issues live in the northern part of the city, near Lake Drive. 

“They deserve a sewer system that works, right? Walter deserves to flush his toilet and poop doesn’t come up in his yard. And they deserve to have streets where they’re not trapped in their house because a stormwater system doesn’t function,” Nelson said. 

Centreville is in a relatively low-lying area, which adds to the problem, said Kalila Jackson, an attorney for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. 

“The water starts above the Signal Hill neighborhood, and it literally just cascades down the bluffs under the highway and directly into the neighborhood in Centreville,” Jackson said. 

Earlie Fuse points to a plywood wall he constructed after his basement wall collapsed. Jan. 27, 2020
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Earlie Fuse points to a plywood wall he constructed after his basement wall collapsed.

Earlie Fuse lives on Piat Place, one of the most frequently flooded streets in Centreville. He’s replaced his walls multiple times. His granddaughter gave him $10,000 to fix them in September. Then, after heavy rains in January, one of his basement walls collapsed. 

“I heard something like thunder,” Fuse said. “That was the wall.” 

Despite all the damage, Fuse, 79, said he can’t leave his home. 

“[The house] is paid for, and I have no money,” he said. “So where am I going?” 

Centreville city officials and Commonfields of Cahokia’s general manager did not return calls for comment. 

Residents don't trust their water

Residents began meeting with lawyers at churches last August to discuss the sewer and flooding problems. At one meeting, lawyers shared preliminary results of water quality tests conducted last summer by researchers at Williams College in Massachusetts and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. 

The results suggested that the overflowing sewage may be affecting the drinking water supply, but there isn’t enough evidence yet to conclude that it’s a health hazard, said José Constantine, an environmental scientist at Williams College. The possibility that their water wasn’t safe to drink led residents to request bottled water, which they’ve been receiving from the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis since October. 

A spokesperson from Illinois American Water said in an email that the utility and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tested the drinking water supply last year in Centreville. They found that drinking water had not been contaminated. 

Valerie Marion keeps her appliances up on bricks to keep them safe from the flood water that seeps into her basement. Jan. 27, 2020
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio
Valerie Marion keeps her appliances up on bricks to keep them safe from the flood water that seeps into her basement.

An impossible living situation

Valerie Marion, 61, misses the days when her parents, siblings and cousins enjoyed coming to her home. Now, they seldom visit. 

“My family came down because I do have so much yard. We like to have family picnics,” Marion said. “Now, we’re just unable to use it because you don’t know what you’re going to walk into.” 

Marion had to remove her deck because of the damage it suffered from multiple floods. The ground is wet year-round, she said. 

“The water has actually ate up the foundation in my home,” she said. “I’m really afraid that my house might fall in.” 

Marion receives a monthly sewer bill of about $25 from Commonfields of Cahokia. She spent several thousand dollars to replace her furnace, air conditioning compressor and hot water heater after floodwaters damaged them. The appliances sit up on bricks in her basement to prevent them from being damaged again. 

“I have to do these things to be able to live in my home,” she said. “But something has to be done.” 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.