The residents’ lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, contends that the sewage system has long been failing; has “severe inflow and infiltration problems”; suffers from malfunctioning lift stations — pumps designed to move sewage through the system; and leaking manholes that allow sewage to discharge.
The suit also alleges that sewage is allowed to flow into waterways in Centreville, including tributaries to the Mississippi River, which would violate the federal Clean Water Act.
An engineer told residents last month that the work needed to get the system in order would be extensive: Some 70 pump stations need repair or replacement, while 13 miles of repairs are required for existing lines and 8 miles of new sewer must be installed.
Jim Nold, a senior project manager for engineering firm Hurst-Rosche Inc., said at a news conference that hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent annually on temporary fixes, but millions of dollars are needed for a true overhaul.
The local government “put Band-Aids on this system to make spot repairs, but it isn’t enough to keep up with the damage that occurs,” he added.
The city and the Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District have asked the courts for an extension to respond to the allegations in the residents’ complaint. Cahokia Heights voters agreed in April to dissolve Commonfields, and officials are working on how to replace the agency.
Neither Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr., who was previously the township supervisor of Centreville, nor water and sewer department officials returned requests for comment.
The suit seeks damages on behalf of residents to be determined at trial and for Commonfields to take action to “prevent or minimize threats to public health and the environment.”
McCall, at the news conference last month, pledged to spend about $2.8 million in federal coronavirus relief aid toward fixing the sewer system, which is permissible under President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. The city was denied a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.
“If we can’t qualify for a grant, then who in the hell can?” McCall asked.
After residents’ plight reached the attention of some of the state’s top elected officials — including Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who called the situation a “textbook example of environmental racism” — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued two orders this month for action. One requires Cahokia Heights to ensure constant monitoring of drinking water pressure and testing for bacteria (the agency noted there has been no evidence of drinking water contamination), and separately, the city must submit plans to identify and address sanitary sewer overflows.
“This order will assist the city in focusing on identifying the most urgent needs for repair of the sewer system in order to protect the public’s health,” Cheryl Newton, the acting administrator for the EPA region that includes Illinois, said in a statement.
Debbie Chizewer, the managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Midwest office in Chicago, said local officials’ inaction over the decades only allowed the problem to fester, and residents have had to fight for the city to do even routine maintenance and inspections.
“They literally have to start from the beginning,” Chizewer said of the requirements placed on the city.
Earlie Fuse, who purchased his Centreville home in 1992, said he remains wary because some of the same people who had the opportunity to take action in past years are still in charge.
Source: NBC News