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U.S. EPA appoints coordinator to address Cahokia Heights flooding and sewage woes

The street and yard of a home in then Centreville, which is now Cahokia Heights, flood during a rainstorm in March 2021. The U.S. EPA took similar action to address lead contamination in Flint, Michigan.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
The street and yard of a home in then-Centreville, which is now Cahokia Heights, during a rainstorm in March 2021.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency appointed a coordinator Tuesday to address chronic sewage and flooding problems in Cahokia Heights.

Beth Murphy, a 20-year veteran of the EPA, will be the inaugural coordinator, said Illinois U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, who pushed the federal agency for the position in April.

“This is really an exciting big step forward, I think, on a problem that has been persistent in Cahokia Heights for decades,” Budzinski said.

She said the six-month gap between her asking for the coordinator and the appointment stems from the EPA wanting to find an applicant with the proper experience.

“Finding the right person is really important,” Budzinski said. “Rather than just rushing into this, we want to do this right. We want to get it done and finally resolved.”

The need for a coordinator stems from long-standing water issues in the Metro East town — which have left residents with standing sewage in their homes and stormwater pooling with no place to go. Residents have been exposed to bacteria and parasites, making them sick, because of the unaddressed problems, according to preliminary studies.

The federal agency took similar action and appointed a coordinator in Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination created a public health emergency, according to Budzinski’s office.

Murphy previously served as supervisor in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, where she managed inspectors, case managers and program analysts to investigate and enforce federal law regarding water quality. Prior to that, Murphy spent 16 years in the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office.

She holds a bachelor's degree in environmental science from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in environmental public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Murphy could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.

Despite millions of dollars from the state and federal government dedicated to fixing the town’s aged infrastructure, residents have said little has changed.

Construction to replace the first portion of the city’s faulty sewer system may start in the next month, said Jim Nold, the city’s engineer. The work may not finish until 2026. However, the first bids for the work have been taken, and the Illinois Environmental Projection Agency, the agency overseeing the construction, needs to sign off on the plan.

A project to repair the city's main trunk line, overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is also underway, Nold said. Bids for construction will be placed next month and could be awarded in January.

Knowing that many residents have long grown skeptical regarding large government grants and false promises to fix the underlying issues, Budzinski said she hopes the news of the coordinator can demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to resolving the problems.

“Our government owes these citizens, these constituents of the 13th District, the people of Cahokia Heights, a lot better,” Budzinski said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.