Cahokia Heights hasn’t received promised funding as residents deal with sewage, flooding
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Cahokia Heights has not yet received the funding promised by state and federal leaders to fix failing infrastructure that causes raw sewage to back up in some residents’ homes and yards and stormwater to flood their streets.
Officials have been working to find funding since media coverage and lawsuits starting in 2020 detailed the impact on residents. They have announced a total of $37 million, according to numbers provided by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s office in August.
But even a $9.9 million state grant for sewer repairs that Gov. J.B. Pritzker said would be “delivered today” during an Aug. 3 news conference has still not reached Cahokia Heights.
The money comes with oversight measures that require the city to submit proposals and allow other agencies to have input and sign off on the plans, which takes time.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the $9.9 million grant. An agency spokesperson could not immediately provide an estimate for when the city will receive the money. Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. thinks it could happen in the next few months.
“I believe that come early spring, the citizens of Cahokia Heights will begin to start seeing some progress on our water and sewer infrastructure that has quite frankly been long overdue for 60 years,” McCall said.
Lawyers representing residents affected by the problems in a pair of lawsuits against local officials and other entities say the oversight measures are critical, even if it means it takes longer for work to get started. It ensures the money is used effectively, lawyers Nicole Nelson and Kalila Jackson say.
Sewage backups and flooding have been an issue for decades in a portion of the former city of Centreville. The town merged with Cahokia and Alorton in 2021 to become the city of Cahokia Heights. Officials told voters the move could bring more federal money to the issue based on the population of a larger town.
The first time local, state and federal officials banded together to get a large amount of funding to address the issues in the community was in early 2021. Local leaders submitted an application for a $22 million federal grant, which received support from U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
The federal agency overseeing the grant ultimately rejected their application.
Officials made announcements about $37 million in alternative funding they had secured in August 2022.
Residents have been complaining to officials about sewage and flooding since at least 2003, they allege in one of the federal lawsuits. They continue dealing with the same problems today, according to Nelson and Jackson.
Nelson said one woman called them Jan. 3 when she could not get dialysis supplies in and out of her home because of flooding after it rained.
Jackson noted some residents still do not drink or even bathe with water from their homes out of fear it is contaminated in a system with backups.
The issue is not limited to Centreville, according to local activist and Cahokia Heights resident Arianna Norris. She lives in the former village of Cahokia, which she describes as downstream from Centreville.
“The whole area’s contaminated,” she said. “You’re not supposed to have sewage in the street.”
James Nold, an engineer for Cahokia Heights, said the city has spent over $3 million in local funds on water and sewer repairs since 2016, with some help from the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department. McCall described that work as a Band-Aid on a system that needs an overhaul.
McCall estimates the city needs about $59 million to address the sewer, water and drainage issues, based in part on an assessment officials did as part of its application for the federal grant in 2021.
Nelson and Jackson say their on-the-ground research with residents and experts for the ongoing litigation yielded an estimate almost double that: more than $100 million.
The city continues looking for funding now. Duckworth recently announced more federal funding that could help Cahokia Heights was included in the Water Resources Development Act, which President Joe Biden signed in late December.
Jackson, Nelson and the residents they represent have learned governments move slowly. But the environmental attorneys they partner with tell them the process is actually moving quicker in Cahokia Heights than it could have.
“What we understand is this is actually miraculous,” Jackson said.
They credit support from people like Duckworth and the Biden administration.
Duckworth said she has worked to make oversight a component of all the funding coming to Cahokia Heights. As part of the oversight, Cahokia Heights will only get part of the $9.9 million state grant at first. Then it will have to pay up front and get reimbursed. The city is also required to hold meetings with citizens and create a website to share updates on its progress.
“This isn’t something that we’re allowing the local leaders to just operate on their own like they had been for the last three decades, which has left people where they are,” Duckworth said in a recent interview.
McCall acknowledged residents’ skepticism of local leadership shortly after he was elected mayor of Cahokia Heights in May 2021 and attended a meeting with Centreville Citizens for Change, a group fighting to get the flooding and sewage issues in their community fixed.
“They should have some distrust,” McCall told the BND in 2021. “Those citizens have been left out in the cold for over 50 years. They’ve been dealing with either stormwater problems or sewer problems, so the lack of trust that they have in their local officials is, to me, deserved.”
McCall has said addressing the issues is his top priority as leader of the new city.
He previously served as Centreville’s township supervisor and as chairman of Commonfields of Cahokia’s board, who owned and operated the water and sewage system in Centreville before the town merger.
Residents say local officials’ negligence caused the issues, which threaten their health and damage their properties, according to their legal complaints. Officials have denied responsibility in their response in court.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.