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Residents ask judge to decide who’s to blame for sewage spilling in Cahokia Heights

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 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.

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

Cahokia Heights residents are asking a judge to make a ruling that the city is to blame for sewage repeatedly spilling from a pipe on a residential street.

Raw sewage backups and chronic flooding caused by failing infrastructure have been an issue for decades in a portion of the former city of Centreville, which consolidated into Cahokia Heights in 2021. Residents filed two federal lawsuits over the issues in 2020 and 2021.

A ruling on liability means they can start talking about solutions before a trial that is possibly more than a year away, according to Courtney Bowie, one of the attorneys representing the residents through the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice. Both lawsuits are scheduled for jury trials in 2024.

Lawyers for the city of Cahokia Heights did not respond to requests for comment this week. But the city has denied liability in court and blamed any damages on an “act of God” or unavoidable accident.

Residents are arguing sewage comes out of a pipe in the 200 block of North 82nd Street, contaminates the neighborhood and eventually flows into Grand Marais Lake in Frank Holten State Park and the Mississippi River, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

They also argue the sewage poses grave health risks and prevents them from entertaining in their yards, planting gardens and fishing in the lake.

One resident, Yvette Lyles, said in a court filing that she believes the conditions have caused asthma and sinus infections in her family, as well as a bacterial stomach infection called H. pylori.

Residents’ cite 91 examples since 2019 and as recently as Feb. 9 of a resident, utility provider, the city, and state and federal environmental protection agencies documenting sewage coming out of the pipe. Almost all of those reports of sewage came from government sources, according to the court filing.

Residents say the neighborhood flooded with stormwater and sewage again after heavy rain on Friday, March 3, which is also when residents filed their motion asking Judge David Dugan for a ruling.

“I’m in the quicksand, still sinking,” resident Walter Byrd said Tuesday, describing the stress and frustration he feels. “... And most of the folks feel the same. We’ve been talking about it. We just barely keeping our head above the sand.”

At the beginning of the year, Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said the city was still waiting on the state to send the funding it promised for sewer repairs five months earlier. State officials said the delay was because of oversight measures attached to the funding.

Although Gov. J.B. Pritzker had said $9.9 million would be “delivered today” during an Aug. 3 news conference, the city still needed to submit proposals and allow other agencies to have input and sign off on the plans before it could use the money. McCall estimated it could happen by early spring.

Meanwhile, Byrd, 65, said many of the residents affected by the issues are retirees like him living on fixed incomes and struggling to find the money for repairs when stormwater and sewage enter their homes.

“We just tired,” he said. “We’re tired of going through this. You know, you work all these years and then you turn around and you gotta live in shit.”

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.