Homes in Centreville, Illinois are regularly flooded with raw sewage. Leaders at all levels of government have failed to take simple steps to resolve the clean-up crisis. On the first anniversary of the newly merged city of Cahokia Heights, legal organizations NRDC, Equity Legal Services, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council and Earthjustice sent this letter demanding action. You can find the PDF version of the letter here.
Last month, Cahokia Heights, St. Located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Centreville celebrated its first anniversary as a newly merged city merging the former Metro East communities of Alorton and Cahokia. Proponents of the merger have claimed that residents will see improvements in the flooding and sanitary sewer crises that plague these communities, but many, including those facing the most extreme impacts, are waiting for real change. For more than two years now, despite increased attention and commitments from the government, and widespread reports about these decades-old problems, residents are stunned by the fact that raw sewage and floodwater have flooded their lawns, streets and even homes with little or no remediation for many. continues to bear the unacceptable burden. years. Creative and aggressive community-led solutions are needed to address these water crises, but it is difficult to see how these solutions will unfold if the same local authorities responsible for these failed systems remain at the center.
For several decades, municipalities and utilities that preceded Cahokia Heights did not take the necessary steps to adequately operate, maintain, and repair the sanitary sewer, stormwater, and potable water systems under their control. Despite clearly deteriorating systems, they were unable to employ qualified personnel to identify the root causes of these problems and design adequate fixes. Utilities also failed to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars from paying customers to permanently repair broken systems.
As a result of these decisions, the exacerbation of the deterioration that led to the crises continues to bear the burden of today on the residents. And even though Cahokia Heights (which includes Commonfields) now pays water utility staff about three to four times what the average local resident sees, problems persist—many of whom are the same people who have run the systems in the past.
In particular, until the last few years, no level of government, from local to federal, has taken meaningful action to help these communities.
Community engagement continues to fall short
After years of relentless advocacy by Centerville residents and other surrounding communities, substantial state and federal funding is now available in theory. Agencies eventually began enforcing environmental laws through several administrative orders that required Cahokia Heights, Illinois American Water, and nearby East St Louis to take a series of steps to identify and address water crises.
While the increased federal and state interest after such a long hiatus is remarkable, we have serious concerns that all levels of government continue to take an approach that does not sufficiently decentralize the residents who successfully garnered this attention in the first place. Without meaningful community involvement and collaboration, even well-intentioned solutions risk repeating the mistakes of the past.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (U.S. EPA) own Equality Action Plan – released last month in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 13985, which requires federal agencies to advance equality, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity – encourages the U.S. EPA to prioritize society. calling. leads projects and “provides solid support to help communities overcome [barriers to engagement] and providing their ability to meaningfully engage with the EPA and other government agencies, participate in decision-making, and capitalize on federal funding opportunities and investments. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) also recognizes the need to “provide adequate opportunities for the meaningful participation of all people in the development, enforcement, and enforcement of equality and environmental laws in the management of government’s environmental programs.” , regulations and policies. ”
Unfortunately, the approach taken by both institutions does not meet their own standards and fails to provide community members with opportunities to ask questions or participate directly in implementation or decision-making processes.
The Illinois EPA began engaging with the community in 2020 in response to residents’ organizing and requests for assistance, but its resident involvement did not reflect the frequency or depth of its consultations with local elected officials and public services. Several times, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency representatives were unprepared for meetings moderated by the Centerville Citizens for Change (CCC). One example was in late summer of 2021, when representatives of the Illinois EPA were unable to provide basic information on the U.S. EPA’s drinking water scheme, despite the agency’s federal obligations to provide safe drinking water in and out of state.
Rather than deepen their relationship with local residents, the Illinois EPA notified the CCC in February 2022 that they would no longer attend the organization’s residents-led meetings, claiming they could instead respond better and more frequently via email. Email updates not only effectively eliminate residents’ ability to ask questions in real time, but also serve to undermine meaningful participation in this community, where many residents do not use email to communicate due to their age and lack of access to and/or internet access. email, among other factors. Such limited “communication” with these residents is far from meaningful engagement, especially given that the problems continue almost unabated.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency involvement has similarly failed to center affected residents. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been formally investigating these issues since at least January 2021, it met face-to-face with residents for the first time last month, despite holding regular meetings with local municipalities and utilities for more than a year. This limited interaction with residents who are experts in their own water systems has left significant gaps in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s practice. For example, the sanitary sewer overflow order authorizes Cahokia Heights to continue using the same engineering firm that has failed to repair sewer overflows that have been going on for decades. Similarly, drinking water patterns in the Piat Place neighborhood did not require monitoring, despite repeated water cuts and associated water problems in the neighborhood over the past few years. The US EPA finally acknowledged the drinking water regulation loophole in April 2022 and ordered Illinois American Water to monitor at Piat Place.
Lack of qualified and trained civil service personnel
The emphasis on listening from local elected officials and public service representatives is particularly worrying, especially in light of the evidence that the City is not ready to take on the problem of repairing its water systems. Although previous municipalities and utilities knew that parts of the water infrastructure were nearing end-of-life, many lift stations serving the area needed to be updated to meet industry standards, they systematically lacked qualified and trained water department personnel and government evidence of poor local stormwater ditches . Many of these personnel were rehired by Cahokia Heights.
Some personnel responsible for sewage and stormwater systems lacked relevant experience when hired and were not provided with appropriate training or technical assistance to do their jobs. For example, from May 2019 to May 6, 2021, the former City of Centerville Public Works Inspector was hired without any prior experience to operate or maintain the sanitary sewer system; nor was it said by then-Mayor Marius Jackson that the maintenance and operation of the city’s sewer system would be an integral part of his duties. Likewise, in the summer of 2019, a few months into his new job in City, he was in the Ping Pong area of North Centerville when he encountered an Illinois EPA official in the field. According to the Centerville inspector, the Illinois Environmental Protection Area official was pointing out the work that needed to be completed by the city. Despite Mayor Jackson’s awareness of contractual obligations dating back to the 1990s and inspections that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources rated the conditions of the ditches, the inspector was for the first time aware of his responsibilities to keep the City’s major drainage ditches clean to prevent flooding. as “Poor” in the field
While this may seem like a prime example of a delay in education in a previous administration, this lack of experience with systems affecting the lives of thousands of residents in Cahokia Heights remains. For example, the Cahokia Heights administration continues to allow the same level of inexperience and destruction. The same Public Works Inspector has not only moved to Cahokia Heights, but is also head of the Demolition program, which will install new water infrastructure without input or direction from engineers or hydrologists. When asked if he had experience in this field, the consultant stated that he had acquired it from family projects. When asked how he planned to install the vents and pipes (a substantial amount of money had already been allocated), his plan included simply walking around the city and installing the vents where he thought they were necessary. There was no mention of involving engineers or surveyors in the process, using inspection reports to guide installation, or developing a priority list.
The City of Cahokia Heights claimed that the merger would put the City in a better position to tackle these major issues. However, these examples show that the Municipality has not made up for the lack of technical experience of its staff for the maintenance and operation of the system. When bringing in new cadres, it’s unclear what experience they will have or whether they will be more qualified than the current cadre. What we do know is that in May 2022 City Hall staff were seen dumping raw sewage into storm water ditches as they bypassed broken lifting stations with a hose with a hole in it.
The municipality’s blatant failure to comply with federal orders also calls into question their ability to take on these issues. The city has exceeded deadlines, drafted plans with a severe lack of authenticity, and failed to implement system improvements that prevent wet and dry air sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s March 2022 inspection report stated that sewage had been draining continuously in North 82 for about a month, and during another U.S. EPA inspection on May 5, 2022, sewage also flowed there.
A new way is urgently needed
Centerville residents understand broken water systems in a way that no outside agent, researcher, scientist, or lawyer can. Aware of this lived experience and knowledge, government at all levels should consult with affected residents to develop and review all plans to repair sewer, flood and drinking water problems.
The Cahokia Heights, Illinois EPA and the US EPA and all other local, state, and federal agencies should start by being more transparent about the steps being taken to correct these issues and address the living conditions of residents. The public, as well as residents, should not be left in the dark about the measures taken, what actions or areas are prioritized, how the funding will be spent, or the timelines for improvements.
None of the progress made to date would have been possible without the advocacy of residents. They have fought for these improvements and have a right to be at the center of the solutions.