ST. LOUIS — Illinois’ two U.S. senators are calling on the federal government to address what they call an “urgent public health crisis” in the Metro East, the persistent flooding and sewage problems that have long plagued Centreville and nearby communities.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Democrats, sent a letter Wednesday to Region 5 of the Environmental Protection Agency, asking the agency to enforce environmental laws, conduct water testing and identify solutions.
“Centreville is located adjacent to East St. Louis and is a low income, largely elderly and 99 percent Black community that faces chronic stormwater flooding and sanitary sewage issues, which has destroyed the homes in which residents have invested,” Duckworth and Durbin wrote. “The urgent public health crisis our constituents are facing — made even worse by the COVID epidemic hitting Centreville and the rest of Metro East particularly hard — demands action.”
The Post-Dispatch wrote about the problems plaguing Centreville — ranked last year as the poorest city in the nation — in a story on Feb. 23. The city of about 5,000 people is 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
In parts of Centreville, dirt trenches line the streets and drain runoff instead of storm drains. The trenches, however, have not been maintained. They fill with standing water and trash and overflow into yards and homes.
Some streets with storm drains are quickly overwhelmed in a downpour, flooding streets and trapping residents.
The city’s sewer system relies on nearly 30 above-ground pumps to move wastewater through the lines. Most are broken, however, overtaken by stormwater or overwhelmed by clogged lines.
With nowhere to go, wastewater bubbles out of manholes and into the streets, mixing with standing stormwater.
Residents are left with rotting floors, mold-covered walls and window sills, crumbling streets and a stomach-churning smell. Many rely on donated bottled water because they are fearful the water system is contaminated.
The stormwater and sewer systems are maintained by Centreville as well as the Commonfields of Cahokia utility. Sewer lines also are connected to East St. Louis’ systems.
Residents say they have faced more than two decades of minor fixes and broken promises of repairs, with agencies finger-pointing and blaming the other for problems. Lately, they can’t get anyone to answer the phones, they say.
Residents also have complained to county officials and state EPA officials. Duckworth and Durbin’s letter addressed the lack of response.
“Yet to our knowledge, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has been largely absent in taking enforcement action against the utility on Centreville residents’ behalf, even though it has taken action against Commonfields on behalf of residents of nearby Belleville that resulted in system improvements for those residents.”
Officials with the state EPA did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The letter comes after Duckworth visited Centreville on July 16 and met separately with local officials and residents. She witnessed the “deplorable” conditions and heard residents’ heartbreaking stories firsthand, she said.
The senators have learned that residents in neighboring East St. Louis and Cahokia, also predominantly Black communities, have similar flooding and sewer issues that also have gone unaddressed.
“These communities’ water systems are directly connected to the water infrastructure in Centreville, likely causing or aggravating Centreville’s problems and tying the communities together in joint deprivation,” the senators wrote.
Last month, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Centreville residents in the U.S. District Court of East Louis. The lawsuit asks a judge to order local officials to immediately fix the broken sewer and drainage systems endangering the lives and homes of city residents, made more urgent by the fear that coronavirus could be spread by contact with wastewater.
Many residents are elderly, placing them at higher risk of severe complications.
The residents are represented by Equity Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to the poor, and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council, which investigates housing discrimination.
In responses filed in court last week, officials with Centreville and Commonfields asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. Officials either denied allegations or argued that they “lack sufficient knowledge” about the two residents’ problems to either admit or deny responsibility.
“Defendants admit that Plaintiffs may have experienced some tribulation from flooding, but to the extent that it is categorized as ‘suffering,’ Defendants demand strict proof thereof,” states the response field on behalf of Commonfields’ officials.
The response also states Commonfields has been aware of problems with infrastructure, which “they have addressed to the extent they are able to.”
Michele Munz • 314-340-8263
@michelemunz on Twitter
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