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In visit to Cahokia Heights, Duckworth says future funding will have oversight

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth canvases a neighborhood with historic issues surrounding water infrastructure while flanked by her counsel Lizzy Olsen, left, and Radhika Fox, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for water, on Monday in Cahokia Heights.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said during a visit to the Metro East community on Monday that $37 million coming to Cahokia Heights to address the local stormwater system will come with more oversight.

The Illinois Democrat toured homes in the area to see the damage from chronic flooding during heavy rains that often contains raw sewage. She was joined by representatives of other federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development.

“This problem requires all of government — federal, state, county, municipality — to fix it,” Duckworth said. “We’re on the road to progress, but there’s a lot that needs to be done.”

She explained the funding coming to Cahokia Heights is a combination of federal and state dollars, including a $10 million grant that was recently awarded by the Illinois EPA. Duckworth acknowledged the $37 million that has been committed to Cahokia Heights may not cover all the fixes the community needs.

“It’s a small amount of money compared to what all needs to be done in total, and it will start with fixing the sewer system,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of investments in these communities, from multiple sources, to rebuild and then to protect them.”

But for some locals, investment alone isn’t enough when funding in the past hasn’t been used effectively by local leaders, said Davona Conners, who recently moved to Cahokia Heights.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Davona Connors, 50, of Cahokia Heights, speaks to Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth about her frustration with local leaders in failing to resolve historic water issues in the town on Monday in Cahokia Heights. Connors said she moved to the former town of Centerville about a year and a half ago and has since gotten sick from the water. “I wouldn’t have moved here if I knew how bad it was,” she said.

She said she doesn’t trust current Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall to properly administer the money.

McCall later said he has not misappropriated funds from any of the government entities he’s worked for in the 30 years he’s been in local government.

Conners pressed Duckworth on what her goals are for this visit and the community.

“I’m asking, what is the show for? Are y’all going to help us?” Conners said. “I’m somebody that’s gotten sick from [the local water], and I’m just 50 years old.”

Other residents share Conners' sentiment, and Duckworth moved to address the frustration, emphasizing that the issues in Cahokia Heights won’t persist.

“The Corps of Engineers is here. They’re going to be watching over everything,” Duckworth said. “We’re going to make sure [Cahokia Heights] has real supervision. We need to make sure that money is spent correctly.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Earlie Fuse, 80, talks to Radhika Fox of the EPA on Monday while explaining how sewage and water backups have caused the foundation to crumble in Cahokia Heights.

This was one of the first times other government officials saw the conditions in Cahokia Heights firsthand, which they said strengthened their commitment to fixing the flooding problems.

“Touring and meeting some of the residents of Cahokia Heights, no one should live like this. Not here, today in our country. It’s not acceptable,” said Radhika Fox, assistant administrator of the Office of Water at the federal EPA.

Fox underscored that the EPA has more resources to help since the bipartisan infrastructure bill was signed into law.

“We have an important oversight role, which we take seriously,” Fox said. “We will use every resource we have, whether it's the infrastructure dollars, our oversight authority, our technical assistance and project management support, we will bring all of that to bear to help make progress here.”

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. 

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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