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Health, Science, Environment

Centerville, Cahokia and Alorton Seek $22 Million To Fix Flooding, Sewage Issues

060320_Provided_centerville flooding.jpg
Provided
A home surrounded by floodwater in Centreville in June 2020. Residents say heavy rainfall combines with the areas failing infrastructure to flood their homes and streets.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Centreville, Alorton and Cahokia have applied for a $22 million federal grant that local leaders believe would fix failed sewage systems in those communities.

If the application is approved, the cities’ consulting engineer firm expects construction could begin next year and take about three years to complete.

Residents in north Centreville, who have endured flooding and sewage issues for decades, are hesitant to get excited about what the grant award could do for their community.

“They’ve been saying they’re going to do this and do that for quite some time,” said Anthony Howard, a Centreville resident who initially wasn’t aware of the grant. “They haven’t really come through on it.”

The new Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program is titled BRIC, or Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities. It is designed to help communities reduce their risk to natural disasters, such as flooding.

Centreville, Alorton and Cahokia - three towns that will merge to become Cahokia Heights later this year - submitted their $22 million application to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. The state agency will apply for the funding from FEMA on behalf of the three cities.

Hurst-Rosche, an engineering firm, worked with the three cities on the application. The firm has served those areas for nearly 40 years.

Jim Nold, a senior project manager for Hurst-Rosche, thinks the FEMA grant will address the abysmal sewage problems in those areas. If they receive the grant, Nold said he expects the project to be completed in about three years.

“(The grant) is for targeting the repair and replacement and mitigation protection against future damage of all of the sewer systems in all those communities, so sanitary sewers, pump stations, force mains (will be repaired),” Nold said. “Basically, all the sewer infrastructure in that part of the metro-east will be worked on because we have been involved in those communities for a number of years and have helped them spot repairs as they have the funds to do them. This (grant) will basically fix everything at once and put it back in working order so that they can maintain it going forward.”

‘We have a God-given right to live in better living conditions’

North Centreville residents have dealt with stormwater and raw sewage overwhelming their homes during severe flooding for years. The issue often makes homes uninhabitable. Some residents even say the situation has led to health issues.

The area’s environmental crisis has led to a lawsuit filed in the summer against the city of Centreville and other local entities. Additionally, the issue prompted a visit from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who has promised to find relief for city residents.

Howard, who has lived in his home since 1971, considers himself one of the lucky ones because even though the flooding affects his neighborhood and the street that he lives on, he said his house hasn’t been as inundated with flooding as those nearby.

“My neighbors can’t say the same thing because I know (for) several neighbors, the water has been inside of their home,” Howard, 68, said. “This happens year after year. It’s not like it happens one year then it clears up the next year. It’s been happening for quite some time.”

Yvette Lyles is Howard’s neighbor. She purchased her North 62nd Street home in 1994. She said the first time her home experienced extensive damage due to flooding was in 1997.

“Water came up all the way in our house where it destroyed carpet, messed up storage boxes with items in it,” Lyles, 61, said. “All that stuff had to be thrown away. My furniture that was in my little mini office, all that furniture was saturated with water, so when we’d open our door, you just saw water, you didn’t see a floor. That’s how deep the water was up in the house.”

Lyles’ home has been severely flooded almost every year since then. Raw sewage often creeps into her crawl space, leaving a stench that’s hard to eliminate. Lyles, who believes the problem has made her asthmatic, said the flooding gets worse each year and can’t keep up with damage repairs.

“When I was young, that was OK,” Lyles, who uses a walker, said about fixing the damages. “I’m older now and disabled, so I can’t keep doing that stuff.”

Nold said those issues persist because the area is vulnerable to flooding conditions.

“The cause of the problem really is the groundwater fluctuations or groundwater flooding, if you will, and that’s related to the fact that all of the metro-east below the bluffs essentially to the west of I-57 is considered the American Bottoms region, and it’s all flat,” Nold said. “...It’s all very close to the levels of the river, which dictate, to a larger degree, what the levels of groundwater are.”

When the Mississippi River water level rises, so does the groundwater, Nold said.

“...When the groundwater comes up, it tends to float the sewers up in the ground, in the sandy silky soil that’s in this region, and then, when the groundwater goes back down, seasonally, then there’s a void created when the sewers collapse eventually. It’s not traditional above-ground flooding like you think of that’s associated with a hurricane or a levee break in the river. It’s more of a seasonal situation where you have groundwater levels rising as a result of river levels rising.”

Still, Lyles said that’s no excuse for what she’s been forced to endure throughout the years.

“We have a God-given right to live in better living conditions as far as the environment,” Lyles said.

A promising opportunity

The grant is the largest the towns have sought to fix the poor infrastructure.

Last year, Centreville and Alorton applied for a $1 million grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that would fund a project to alleviate the issues, but the cities didn’t receive the award.

Nold said the scope and size of the BRIC grant would help eliminate all of the issues associated with the sewage systems.

“This will take care of the sewer problems in the area and basically bring everything up to a good working condition,” Nold said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen again. It doesn’t mean there won’t ever need to be repairs again because, like I said, the conditions in that area are just prone to these kinds of problems, but it will enable these communities to get on top of the problem and sort of stay current, if you will, with problems that occur as opposed to playing catch up.”

Although there is no concrete award date for BRIC grants, Nold said he anticipates to be updated about the towns’ application status in June. If they’re awarded the grant, the cities will have 36 months, starting on the award date, to complete the needed repairs. However, recipients can ask for extensions to that time frame, according to the grant’s website.

“We don’t really anticipate being able to start work at all until some time in 2022, and even though some of the engineering work and design work may occur before that, we don’t expect contractors to begin until next year, and then it will take around three years to get all of the work done,” Nold said.

Lyles said she’ll “jump for joy” if the work gets done. Until then, though, she said she doesn’t want to get too excited about it because of the lack of help she’s received to fix the flooding in her home.

Like her neighbor, Lyles also wasn’t made aware of the grant, which she deems as problematic. “They do need to let us know what’s going on,” Lyles said. “This is our community.”

“They need to give citizens more transparency, more information about the planning stages, more information about are you actually going to start doing this. You can’t put a band-aid on the problem, but in order for the sore to go away, you have to get rid of the problem, and we need resolution.”

Nicole Nelson, an attorney who is dedicated to helping Centreville residents, said she vaguely knew about the towns’ plan to apply for the grant. In the summer, Nelson was one of the lawyers who filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents against the city and Commonfields of Cahokia, the water utility company that manages Centreville’s wastewater system.

She’s concerned about the lack of community participation with this grant opportunity. Nelson works closely with Centreville Citizens for Change, of which Lyles is a part, a group of residents who are demanding solutions to the flooding issues. Nelson said none of the residents in the group were made aware of the grant.

“Twenty-two million dollars is a lot and can do a lot of good for the areas of Centreville and Alorton, but I think the problem is are the right people going to be in place to allocate it, and unfortunately, there is no community collaboration,” Nelson said. “The residents know because we tell them, but it’s not because the officials in Centreville are communicating with them.”

By the summer, when the three towns are expected to be notified about the grant, Cahokia Heights will be an official town in the metro-east. And Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr. will be the city’s first mayor. McCall said fixing the flooding problems in Centreville is a main priority, and he urges residents to get involved.

“They have to get involved,” McCall said. “It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and complain, but it’s another thing to get involved, so I ask all of the citizens to get involved.”

McCall said:“...I live where I represent. So often, some politicians have the position, but they don’t live there. I live in Cahokia Heights, and I also experience the same problems that my neighbors do with the sewers. As the mayor, I believe I will be the voice of the people. I will speak out.”

McCall said residents who want to get involved or have questions about anything can reach him at 618-520-3533.

For Howard, promises from officials in the area don’t mean much to him. He wants action.

“I would like to see it happen, but, believe me, I won’t hold my breath on this because I don’t have a lot of faith in them doing anything,” Howard said about the grant.

On Tuesday, Centreville Citizens for Change, Equity Legal Services and Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council will host a town hall to discuss the future of Cahokia Heights and what it means for Centreville residents.

Among the speakers are Duckworth and a representative from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The event starts at 5 p.m. via Zoom. To register, visit this link: t.ly/D8zu

DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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