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Cahokia Heights residents want to know where money is to fix broken sewer system

Raw sewage flows out of a pipe in Cahokia Heights.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
What appears to be raw sewage and storm water are pumped out of a pipe outside of a Cahokia Heights home in 2020. Rain causes anxiety for residents because it regularly leads to flooding that makes the sewers overflow.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Cahokia Heights has still not received most of the millions of dollars that state and federal leaders said two years ago would be available to fix broken infrastructure in the community that causes sewage to spill into streets and homes.

The city will soon have to provide a public report about what it has done to follow up with the state and federal government since that funding was announced in 2022.

The requirement from a federal judge comes after a town hall meeting and court hearing this week about Cahokia Heights’ progress on infrastructure repairs where residents pressed the city for more details about the money.

Decadeslong infrastructure issues in Cahokia Heights have caused sewage to back up in toilets, sinks and bathtubs or spill into homes with floodwater because heavy rain forces sewers to overflow onto the streets and residents’ properties.

Local, state and federal officials have been working together to find the funding to fix it since media coverage and lawsuits starting in 2020 drew more attention to the issue.

The city has so far received a $9.9 million grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to begin work on the sewer system.

Residents want to know about the rest of the $21 million in state funding for sewer infrastructure that Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Aug. 3, 2022, and $28 million in federal funding for water infrastructure that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, announced Aug. 15, 2022.

Getting the money is a process, city employees overseeing community outreach and engineering for the projects said during Wednesday’s town hall meeting. Cahokia Heights has to apply to the various agencies that control the money for approval on how it’s spent, according to the employees.

That news left some town hall attendees questioning whether the funding is guaranteed.

Resident Jacquelyn Austin asked what would happen to the money lawmakers promised to Cahokia Heights if those people left office or lost re-election bids. And Pastor Barry Simmons, of New Visions World Ministry Church in Cahokia Heights, asked what citizens could do to make sure the city gets the rest of the money for infrastructure repairs, like signing a petition.

An estimated 100-150 people filled the pews at Miracle Deliverance Temple in Cahokia Heights for the town hall meeting. Residents asked questions for the majority of the meeting — about 45 minutes — and most of them asked about the money.

“If you said we only got $10 million, when are we going to get $49 million, if you put those two together?” Simmons asked.

Jim Nold, senior project manager for Cahokia Heights’ engineering firm Hurst-Rosche, Inc., said legislators can sometimes roll funding back but typically once it’s approved in the state or federal budget, it’s secured for the community and all that’s left is going through this process to access the money.

The governor’s office confirmed the city is seeking state money as projects come online.

Antonio Baxton of Baxton and Associates, the company handling community outreach for the city, said residents could send an email to his team at communityoutreach@cahokiaillinois.org, which would work like a petition and get forwarded to officials.

It’s not the city’s first funding delay.

The $9.9 million Illinois EPA grant is part of the $21 million that Pritzker committed to Cahokia Heights. At the news conference where the governor announced the funding in 2022, he said the $9.9 million would be delivered that day. But it didn’t reach the city until seven months later.

That money also required an application and approval process, the governor’s office later said.

At Thursday’s court hearing, residents’ lawyers argued they should have more information about when the city applied for the outstanding money and the status of those applications.

In response to the lawyers’ request, Judge David W. Dugan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois said he would issue an order that requires the city to file a report on the funding in federal court. He said he would give the city 21 days to complete it. Dugan had not yet issued the order as of Thursday night.

A lack of clarity about the hang-ups in getting money to the city is the main reason U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, pushed for the EPA to appoint a coordinator to work in Cahokia Heights last year, according to the congresswoman’s office.

Beth Murphy, an EPA scientist, was given the job of coordinating the response and funding from all levels of government. Murphy was not immediately available this week to provide an update on what she has learned about the funding since she started working in October, according to the EPA.

In his Aug. 3, 2022, announcement, Pritzker stated that the $21 million in state funding for Cahokia Heights’ sewer infrastructure was coming from the Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan.

The $28 million in federal funding that Durbin announced Aug. 15, 2022, includes $26.5 million of the city, county and state shares of federal COVID-related relief funds from the American Rescue Plan for water infrastructure projects and a $1.5 million earmark for projects identified as part of the HeartLands Conservancy’s Prairie Du Pont Watershed Plan study. HeartLands’ study focused on finding solutions to persistent flooding in Cahokia Heights.

Durbin’s office deferred to the local, county and state governments, which are managing the COVID-19 relief dollars.

What $9.9 million will pay for

The Illinois EPA grant isn’t enough to fix everything that’s wrong with the sewer system. The city is prioritizing the areas that have the most issues with service like back-ups, according to Nold.

He said the $9.9 million will be used to repair 22 sewer breaks and 35 pump stations, which help move sewage through the system to the treatment plant. The city has a total of 69 pump stations.

According to Nold’s presentation to the community, the city has completed two sewer break repairs in the Piat Place and Parkside neighborhoods in the former city of Centreville. Centreville consolidated with the villages of Cahokia and Alorton in 2021 to become the city of Cahokia Heights.

The next project will repair nine more sewer break. It is expected to begin in mid-April.

The city is halfway through the design phase of repairing 16 pump stations and will soon submit permits to the Illinois EPA. Nold estimated that the city would start accepting bids from contractors for the work this summer.

He said all the contractors selected for work so far have been from local companies.

Part of the $9.9 million grant is also being used to satisfy a matching funds requirement for an additional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grant to repair a portion of the main sewer, called a trunkline, which collects the wastewater from all the other pipes in the system.

Nold said the entire truckline is about 12 miles long. The $3.5 million Army Corps of Engineers grant, which Durbin secured, will repair three and a half miles of it.

Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Lexi Cortes is an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.