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Cahokia Heights can repair faulty sewers with nearly $10 million state grant

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Curtis McCall Sr., Cahokia Heights Mayor, listens to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as he addresses elected officials and the media on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, after announcing more than $20 million in support for local water infrastructure at Cahokia Heights City Hall in Cahokia Heights.

Cahokia Heights will receive a $9.98 million grant from the state for its faulty sewer system, nearly a quarter of it as early as Tuesday.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency approved a state grant for the newly formed city last week after state and local officials finalized construction plans, according to Kim Biggs, an EPA spokeswoman.

Many who live in what used to be Centreville have long complained about raw sewage flooding their homes and streets. While the governor promised state funding last August, regulatory delays meant those residents were left waiting another spring — and another round of flooding.

The state EPA asked the Illinois Comptroller’s office to expedite the payment to Cahokia Heights. A spokeswoman for the comptroller confirmed the office processed a $2.4 million voucher on Monday for the first installment of the grant.

“The Illinois EPA has been working closely with City officials to move forward with this funding opportunity, while also ensuring the grants funds are used to address existing, chronic problems within the collection and transport system to bring relief to residents and businesses,” Biggs said in an email.

The nearly $10 million will be used to rehabilitate or restore 35 stations that pump sewage and thousands of feet of sewer pipe, according to grant details released by the Illinois EPA. The end goal is improved collection and transportation of wastewater and meeting regulatory requirements.

Cahokia Heights submitted plans for an outreach program that the grant requires.. They include a mandatory update to a city webpage and regularly scheduled public meetings to keep residents of the town of nearly 18,000 informed about the repairs.

Residents filed two federal lawsuits over the issues. Just last week, residents asked a judge to rule before going to trial.

Nicole Nelson, the executive director of Equity Legal Services and the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the both cases, said the grant is welcome news.

“I think it's great, and it's timely,” Nelson said.

Already this spring, the city’s sewers backed up and residents are still cleaning up. The wait for those residents has been incredibly frustrating, she said.

“The people who are closest to the problem and the ones who are bearing the brunt of the problem,” Nelson said.

For some residents, the timing of the grant is frustrating.

“It’s taken too long,” said William McNeal, a member of Centreville Citizens for Change, one of the groups suing the city. “I’m 71 years old. I’ve been dealing with this mess here for the longest (time), and it don’t look like nothing changing.”

McNeal has lived in Centreville for nearly 45 years. He can remember flooding problems for at least the last 10 years. The residents have been promised change before, but it’s not come from city or state officials in meaningful ways, he said.

“They treat us like we live in a third world country or something,” he said.

While this first installment provides some hope, it’s just a fraction of the $22 million the state promised Cahokia Heights. Where is the rest of the money, Nelson asked.

“It’s a step in the right direction. It’s been a long time coming for those folks,” said State Rep. Kevin Schmidt, R-Millstad, who represents the area in the Illinois General Assembly. “Unfortunately, the work probably won't get done before the spring rains.”

Another $919,000 will be granted to the Heartlands Conservancy, a nonprofit organization in southwestern Illinois, to “help identify stormwater runoff to reduce flood events” in Cahokia Heights and part of East St. Louis, according to the grant.

The conservation group will develop a management plan for the 95,000 acre area in the Prairie du Pont watershed, which stretches from Washington Park to Columbia and Millstadt. Heartlands will put up nearly $100,000 of its own money for the project.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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