EPA Orders Cahokia Heights Drinking Water Tested After ‘Serious Problems’ Found
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday ordered that the city of Cahokia Heights must take “immediate actions” to prevent drinking-water contamination after a recent inspection identified “serious problems” that could affect water safety, especially during sewer overflows.
The EPA did not specify exactly what the problems involve, but fixing them will involve more frequent testing and monitoring, a release from the agency stated.
For decades, residents of the former city of Centreville, now part of Cahokia Heights, have struggled with flash flooding and raw sewage in yards and homes.
In approximately 54 homes of the 4.29 square-mile area, flooding has made life difficult for the people who live there, so much so that the residents meet regularly on ways to pressure local officials to fix the problems. Two lawsuits have been filed.
“This order is an important step toward ensuring safe drinking water for the Cahokia Heights community,” said acting EPA Region 5 Administrator Cheryl Newton. “EPA is pleased to have the support of the state of Illinois and is working with them and with other federal agencies in a whole-of-government approach to fix these problems once and for all.”
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the order requires Cahokia Heights, the Village of Cahokia Public Water System, Commonfields of Cahokia and the Illinois American Water Co. to increase its monitoring for bacteria, chlorine and water pressure in areas where sanitary sewer overflows occur, and address operation and maintenance issues including increasing staffing and making repairs to storage tanks and the distribution systems.
Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said the city would start increased testing and monitoring immediately on Tuesday. He said he’d be “demanding” that any recommendations by the IEPA or federal EPA be put into action in the city.
“As the mayor, I’m going to work with the Illinois EPA and the United Sates EPA on both the sewers and the water to make sure we’re in compliance,” McCall said. “I will not, as the mayor of Cahokia Heights, take any excuses in this.
“This is something that has to be done, we have to fix our infrastructure.”
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, who has visited the area several times and promised aid to the people of Cahokia Heights, said she is “deeply concerned” for the safety of people who live in the city. She said the management of the city’s water system needs to be repaired.
”With this enforcement action, EPA is rightfully recognizing that the people of Cahokia Height’s health is the highest priority and is currently endangered by the state of their crumbling water systems,” Duckworth said in a statement. “Although this is a necessary step, it is a shame that these residents are in this situation at all. I am hopeful this action will help the city get back on the right track toward compliance and improving residents’ lives.”
U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who has also visited the area to discuss the flooding and sewage issues, echoed Duckworth’s calls for quick action.
“Flint, Michigan, taught us to take the safety of our drinking water seriously,” he said. “That’s why this announcement by U.S. EPA is an important step to address the long-held concerns of residents in Cahokia Heights of drinking water contamination.
“These Illinoisans deserve the strongest, swiftest measures to ensure their drinking water is safe.”
McCall said he’d be calling on Duckworth and Durbin, as well as other leaders like St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to help fix the sewage issues in Cahokia Heights. He said his goal is to fix the problems by the end of his first year in office.
“Everybody knows that infrastructure is the biggest issue in America and its clearly the biggest issues in Cahokia Heights,” McCall said. “It’s too big of an item to do alone so we’re going to need help. But we’re going to do everything we can on our end.”
McCall added that the city’s water and sewage department is now fully staffed.
McCall’s pledge of fixing the flooding issues aren’t being taken seriously by everyone. Members of Centreville Citizens for Change, a group of residents whose homes have been most affected by the decades of flooding, have heard promises in the past.
McCall was the township supervisor of the former Centreville and served as the chairman of Commonfields of Cahokia, the agency that manages the sewer system in the area with the worst flooding. His son, Curtis McCall Jr. was the mayor of Centreville before the village was merged into Cahokia Heights following an April referendum.
Last week, 24 residents of the area filed litigation against Commonfields of Cahokia and Cahokia Heights under the Clean Water Act, in hopes the courts will force local government agencies to fix decades-long flooding problems.
Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.