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Lawsuit over chronic flooding in Cahokia Heights moves forward

What appears to be raw sewage and storm water are being pumped out of a pipe in the 200 block of North 82nd Street in Centreville. A federal lawsuit seeking to stop this kind of discharge is moving forward after a judge denied motions to dismiss it.
Derik Holtmann
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Belleville News-Democrat
What appears to be raw sewage and stormwater were being pumped out of a pipe in the 200 block of North 82nd Street in Centreville, now part of Cahokia Heights. A judge has denied motions to dismiss a federal lawsuit seeking to stop this kind of discharge.

A federal judge has denied four motions to dismiss a 2021 lawsuit brought by residents in Cahokia Heights that alleges the local government mismanaged the sewer utility, failing to ensure basic sewage and stormwater services and causing repeated flooding.

The November order from U.S. District Judge David W. Dugan found the motions from the defendants in the case — Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District, the City of Cahokia Heights and the Metro East Sanitary District — were not sufficient against the claims from the plaintiffs that the way the city managed water caused sewage to overflow into public waterways and residents’ homes.

“The arguments were basically that the lawsuit we filed was too long and too confusing for them to respond to,” said Nicole Nelson, executive director at Equity Legal Services and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case.

She added that one of the motions was a question of jurisdiction. Commonfields of Cahokia argued it could not participate in the lawsuit since the public water district has been dissolved, according to court records.

“The court dismissed all their motions,” Nelson said. “That means we continue. We’re in discovery right now doing depositions and exchanging information.”

Attorneys for the defendants could not be reached for comment.

A thick layer of sludge lines Earlie Fuse’s basement on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in Cahokia Heights. Infrastructure issues in the former city of Centreville have caused countless homes sewer lines to back up and flood. In Fuse’s case, the water has caused his home’s foundation to crack and multiple basement walls to crumble.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A thick layer of sludge lines Earlie Fuse’s basement on Oct. 12, 2021, in Cahokia Heights. Infrastructure issues in the former city of Centreville have caused countless homes sewer lines to backup and flood. In Fuse’s case, the water has caused his home’s foundation to crack and multiple basement walls to crumble.

This is the second lawsuit filed over the sewer and flooding issues in the small, predominantly Black and low-income Metro East community.

It seeks to stop the local government from discharging raw sewage into the community in violation of the Clean Water Act and compensatory damages for individual plaintiffs who have had raw sewage back up into properties during flooding.

The denied motions are a nugget of good news for residents and plaintiffs, who have dealt with decades of chronic flooding from the failing sewer system.

“I am so glad their motion to dismiss was denied,” said Yvette Lyles, one of the plaintiffs. “It shows their neglect, lack of care and dismissed accountability for our basic needs.”

Lyles said the denials gave her some hope the groups she considers responsible for sewage backing up into her yard and home would be held accountable in court.

“We are mostly retired seniors or disabled on fixed incomes, who’ve worked hard to own and maintain our homes and shouldn't have to suffer continuously because local municipalities refuse to allocate our tax dollars for maintenance and repairs of community basic necessities,” she said.

It’s a sentiment others in the community share.

“The city wasn’t treating us fair,” said Walter Byrd, another plaintiff. “They know we had this problem a long time ago.”

08222022_BM_FLOODING-8.JPG
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), center in dark blue, and Radhika Fox, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for Water, right, and other state and federal officials survey damage from historic water infrastructure issues on Aug. 22 in Cahokia Heights.

Byrd noted that many residents around Cahokia Heights have complained for years that the government was moving too slowly to address the problems.

“We are just tired of suffering,” he said. “It is taking a long time, and we still have to deal with the same thing. We’re hanging in here, that’s all we’re doing.”

But this case will still take time to resolve, Nelson said. It's moved into depositions, including for 31 plaintiffs, defendants and potential experts, she said.

“There’s a lot of people to depose, just plaintiffs alone,” she said. “Federal rules allow that you can depose someone up to seven hours. Some of our clients can’t sit for that long, because of various ailments and health conditions they have.”

Nelson said she expects the case to remain in the discovery phase for the next year. In the meantime, Cahokia Heights is under an administrative order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the issues with the sewer system.

The city has also received federal and state grants to fix the flooding issues.

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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