In the Metro East, residents battle raw sewage, flooding — and indifference
In the Metro East city of Cahokia Heights, which includes the former municipality of Centreville, sewer and stormwater systems are often so full that raw sewage seeps into residents’ yards.
“You’d think we live in a Third World country, the way the city don't care,” said William McNeal, who has lived there for more than 45 years.
The foundation of his house continues to shift because of flood damage. He can’t drink water from the tap, and he regularly has to scare off snakes and mice from the home.
“Where I live, a ditch runs down the side of my house. So all of the water that comes up from Belleville, from all the other places, runs down the side of my house with the trash and stuff, and it sits in my yard [and] goes under my house, and you can't get it out,” he said. “And the raw sewage too. We couldn't sit outside because of the smell of the raw sewage … when the sun come out.”
But McNeal said he can’t afford to leave.
And although McNeal and other members of Centreville Citizens for Change have experienced severe flooding for two decades, officials have done little to mitigate the problem — or to even find out what’s causing it.
“The big problem that we face is that the channels and the systems aren't well-monitored,” geoscientist José Constantine told St. Louis on the Air. “We just don't have that within our data collecting infrastructure.”
An assistant professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, Constantine is part of a coalition now collecting data at the site to determine where flooding is the worst, having installed digital cameras in residents’ yards to document what’s happening.
“There are some large channels that are coming off of the bluffs and are filling up these ditches and canals and streams with sediment. We need to figure out how that process is happening, the role that land use change and environmental mismanagement is playing in that,” he said. “We also need to do a better job of figuring out the kinds of rainstorms that trigger flooding.”
Constantine’s work is used by the legal team representing affected residents, which includes Nicole Nelson, the executive director of Equity Legal Services, and Kalila Jackson of the Equal Housing Opportunity Council.
“A lot of the community meetings [involved] them telling us what the issues were and we would go back and study it and assign each other parts — and we realized this was not our expertise,” Nelson said. “And that's how we brought people like [the Natural Resources Defense Council], [the nonprofit] Earthjustice and José to the table.”
The two attorneys filed suit in 2020 in federal court, alleging violations of both state law and the U.S. Constitution on the part of the Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District, the town of Centreville and some individual administrators.
Then, in 2021, they joined with Earthjustice to file suit for damages against the Commonfields water district and the newly formed city of Cahokia Heights. (Earlier that year, Centreville merged with two other small, majority Black towns to form the new entity of Cahokia Heights. Voters also opted to dissolve the Commonfields water district.)
“A lot of the residents, as Mr. McNeal mentioned, live on a very limited income. They've been repairing the same floors, buying five or six hot water heaters and furnaces, throughout the lives of their home,” Nelson said. “And a lot of their homes are unstable.”
A little more than a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency entered administrative orders against Cahokia Heights and Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District for the sewage overflows and issues with the drinking water system. But the agency has yet to take those complaints to court.
Nelson said she would like to see stronger enforcement measures by the agency. “Litigation is maybe 30% of what we do,” she explained. “A lot of what we also do is a lot of pushing behind the scenes and agitating to make a lot of people do their jobs.”
As Nelson and Jackson continue to fight in the courts and push for action by government agencies, Constantine and his team have submitted a proposal to NASA’s environmental justice division to re-up funding for geospatial science monitoring in Cahokia Heights.
“It's not anything any one of us can do,” Nelson said. “We couldn't do it without the residents mobilizing, and we sure couldn't do it if Kalila and I weren't teamed up together.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.