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Cahokia Heights' EPA coordinator is leaving, touts progress in six months on job

Beth Murphy, a special coordinator at the Environmental Protection Agency, right, speaks with U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, left, during a groundbreaking ceremony for the start construction on the main sewer line on Monday, April 1, 2024, in Cahokia Heights.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Murphy, right, a special coordinator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks with U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, during a ceremony on April 1 for the start of construction on the main sewer line in Cahokia Heights.

After about six months coordinating the federal response to long-standing sewer and flooding problems in Cahokia Heights, Beth Murphy will leave the job at the start of next month for a different position with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Murphy, whose new job will be managing the EPA’s regional drinking water program, will be replaced by Betsy Nightingale.

Nightingale has spent more than 10 years working in the EPA’s Superfund program, which responds to thousands of contaminated sites across the country.

Murphy spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Metro East reporter Will Bauer. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Will Bauer: Were you aware of any other places in the U.S. that have dealt with similar problems like the ones in Cahokia Heights has over the past decades — or is this a fairly unique situation?

Beth Murphy: I'm certainly aware of other large-scale infrastructure problems in cities and municipalities that are struggling. I don't know how to compare them to Cahokia Heights, having not been there or seen them. But certainly crumbling infrastructure or aging infrastructure is a real challenge for wastewater and drinking water across the U.S.

Raw sewage flows out of a pipe in Cahokia Heights.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Raw sewage and storm water are being pumped out of a pipe in the 200 block of North 82nd Street in Cahokia Heights, formerly Centreville, in February 2020. Neighbors complain about the stench when the temperatures are warm. Tampons, toilet paper and other items can be seen in the water and on the ground near the pipe.

Bauer: In your roughly six months in this position, what’s your assessment of the problems facing this community and its sewer and water systems?

Murphy: The biggest lesson learned and the largest deliverable that I have been working on in the past several months is something I'm referring to as the matrix. It's a collection of information, creating a one-stop shop, if you will, of information to be shared transparently across all stakeholders who are interested in receiving it in the Metro East area. It will include points of contact, federal, state and local funding opportunities, technical assistance and grant writing workshops and opportunities to understand how to apply for grants, collections of large scale projects — and, very importantly, the list of existing projects that are being contemplated, have been completed, or are in search of funding by each of the cities and municipalities in the area. Hopefully, they will be able to connect unfunded infrastructure and necessary projects to funding opportunities and provide the technical assistance to allow those cities to access those funds.

Bauer: U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, made the request for your position. She said that hang-ups or delays getting funding flowing to start construction and solving some of these infrastructure issues had been one of the reasons why she asked for this position. Is that your understanding?

Murphy: That's certainly part of it. I do think that there's a little bit of assistance fatigue that some of our communities may be experiencing. They're overwhelmed by the work of serving their residents, the work of finding funding and the work of improving and fixing broken pipes on a day-to-day basis. As we're starting to understand where the needs are, that the projects have been developed and that the funding still remains. We're hoping that this matrix — and this sort of more direct connection between unfunded projects and available funding — will aid those cities in finding the resources that they need.

Bauer: What funding gaps, if any, have you identified for the problems that the community faces? What does the community still need to address the ongoing issues?

Murphy: I'm sorry to say there are more needs than there are opportunities at the moment — or at least cash in hand. The goal is to draw connections to bill money or other federal opportunities through FEMA or Illinois EPA to begin to fill those gaps. But that's going to have to come in combination with the development of project plans and scopes of work and an understanding of the projects that need to be completed. It seems as if those are being pulled together pretty routinely. Hopefully, this first iteration of the matrix will start to draw those connections to the projects that need to be completed. The matrix is intended to be a living, breathing document that will grow with new needs, and, hopefully, new funding opportunities being provided.

Workers with the city of Cahokia Heights try to pump water out of the Piat Place neighborhood in 2023. Residents said the city was on the scene during the rain but were unable to keep up with the flooding.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Workers with the city of Cahokia Heights try to pump water out of the Piat Place neighborhood in 2023. Residents said city workers on the scene during the rain were unable to keep up with the flooding.

Bauer: I wanted to bring up something that I hear from residents. Even after construction has started on some of these pump stations and sewer breaks this year, the neighborhoods on the north side of town, which have historically had the worst problems, still have problems. From their perspective, this process is just disheartening and frustrating. What would you say to those concerns?

Murphy: First, I'd like to offer some understanding. I can't imagine living with some of the experiences that these residents routinely have experienced and have experienced for decades. My only offer is that similar to the renovation of a home, for example, it's an iterative process. As you begin to open walls — or open roads to look for pipes — sometimes additional concerns or more egregious repairs become necessary. I believe that the municipalities, the state, the governments and the federal agencies are all working in good faith toward trying to do the best for residents possible. There's no way that things could be done overnight. I certainly believe that residents living in these areas are deserving of higher quality services, and I'm hopeful that those services are coming. It is, unfortunately, a large and rather slow process, which I know can be very frustrating.

Bauer: From your vantage point, what needs to happen next to get these chronic problems on the right track?

Murphy: That's a big question. We have to start somewhere, and I think there's a number of workshops and technical assistance opportunities that are being rolled out at multiple levels to aid cities, governments, advocacy groups, etc., to train people on how to apply for funding. I'm very hopeful that we're approaching a snowball-type phase where we'll see small groups of projects getting off the ground, which will lead to larger, more robust projects. I think there's a long way to go. But there's opportunity and motivation and desire today in this area in a way that, for my understanding, has not been present in the past — and so I remain hopeful.

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