July 29, 2020

U.S. senators request EPA help to fix “urgent public health crisis” in Centreville

Source: Belleville News Democrat


CENTREVILLE – U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin want the federal Environmental Protection Agency to help solve flooding and sewage issues in Centreville, where residents say their lives have been upended for decades due to failed infrastructure.

The Illinois Democrats called the situation in Centreville an “urgent public health crisis” in a letter this week to EPA Region 5 Administrator Kurt Thiede.

“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, prevented them from enjoying the natural beauty of their area and posed challenges to their health,” the letter states. “...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.”

Duckworth and Durbin ask the agency to:

  • Identify regional solutions to the flooding and sewer problems as “ we pursue a whole-government approach to addressing the environmental justice challenges faced there.”
  • Help ensure enforcement of environmental laws.
  • Investigate the condition of the water distribution system and test the drinking water as residents have been concerned about possible contamination.

Thiede could not immediately be reached for comment.

Centreville residents say their lives have been upended for years by flooding during rainstorms, but their local leaders and Commonfields of Cahokia have failed to fix the problems. Commonfields runs the wastewater system.

Duckworth and Durbin talk about the sewage issues in their letter to Thiede.

“This sewage problem is in part due to non-functioning or barely functioning pump stations that should pump sewage away from homes, as well as crumbling sewage pipes,” the letter states. “Further, the community’s storm water ditches and overall infrastructure are overwhelmed by even light rains, and have needed attention and maintenance for several decades.”

The senators are critical of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Their letter states that the Illinois 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.

“We also understand that these issues are not limited to Centreville, but impact many similarly situated residents and communities in the Metro East region, including Cahokia, a municipality that is also predominantly Black.”

A representative from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Residents Demand City to Take Action

In June, two Centreville residents filed a lawsuit over the flooding and sewer problems. The defendants are the city of Centreville, Centreville Mayor Marius “Mark” Jackson, Centreville Township, Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr., Commonfields of Cahokia and its superintendent, Dennis Traiteur.

The lawsuit asks the court to stop the defendants from depositing or diverting stormwater onto their properties and to replace some of the village’s pump or lift stations. The suit asks for the installation of new sewer lines, where needed, as well as a monitor to make sure the changes are being made.

One of the plaintiffs, Earlie Fuse, says he’s had to replace his basement wall more than four times due to floodwater.

Yvonne Cole, a neighbor of Fuse, has lived in her North 62nd Street home for nearly 40 years. She is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but recently talked about the flooding problems in an interview.

She says flooding at her home is becoming worse. Cole has pacemaker. She has also had surgery on both knees, so she said she can’t always work on repairs like she used to.

“Usually it floods for the whole day,” said Cole, 79. “A lot of mud sometimes creeps into my backyard, so I can’t get out. A couple of times, I’ve had a whole area of flooding that had gotten into my side room where I had to take out the whole carpet out and have that done over again.”

Cole is happy about federal officials getting involved, but she isn’t completely hopeful that changes will be made.

“I’d like to see where it goes from there, but I’ve been hearing stories like that ever since I’ve been here,” Cole said. “They say ‘We’re going to do this’ or ‘We’re going to clean this out,’ but I don’t really see anything developing. It’s getting worse for me and my whole neighborhood. That’s the whole point of us being at the city meetings. It’s maddening, really.”

“But it seems like someone has heard us. With the involvement of those senators, maybe we can finally get a response or some kind of relief that would help with what’s going on.”

‘It’s Not an Easy Fix’

Earlier this month, Duckworth visited Centreville residents and officials. After those meetings, she said her office could help, but it is up to local officials to take the lead. During the meeting with residents, she heard stories of inaction and a lack of communication from local officials.

Duckworth’s meeting with officials was held in private for undisclosed reasons. She said the meeting left her concerned over how the issues were being handled when local officials couldn’t answer basic questions about flooding or how they plan to handle the issues.

Centreville’s mayor, Marcus Jackson, did not attend the meeting and has not responded to more than a dozen requests for comment from The Belleville News-Democrat on the flooding issues.

Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr. said after the private meeting “the issue is more complex than asking the city to fix it, calling the lawsuit filed by Fuse and fellow resident Cornelius Bennett “misinformed.”

“It’s not an easy fix,” McCall said about current sewage issues. “We’re dealing with bad infrastructure, and it’s been going on for years.”

McCall said Wednesday he welcomes the senators’ request for EPA involvement.

“We have an infrastructure problem, and it needs to be replaced,” McCall said. “This is a problem bigger than local government and bigger than state government. It’s a federal government problem as well.”

“I know some of those people who’ve filed the lawsuit and I’ve talked with them. I’ve known Earlie Fuse for all of my life, and they’re good people, and they want relief. They deserve to live the rest of their lives not having to go through that sewage and drainage problem overlooking their homes. However, that issue is bigger than a local city issue. We’re talking millions of dollars, and poor cities like ours don’t have that.”

Nicole Nelson, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of residents, said Duckworth and Durbin’s calls for the EPA’s involvement is good progress and momentum the residents need. She said she hopes that momentum will lead to action.

“We are hoping with her [Duckworth’s] involvement officials will feel it’s more necessary to move, since they haven’t so far,” Nelson said.

Cole said she’s tired of constantly having to deal with flooding in her home. She hopes that someone can help her and her community while she’s still alive.

“I’m still here,” Cole said. “I’m still living, but just like anyone else, I’d like to have a halfway decent home.”

By:  Kavahn Mansouri and DeAsia Paige