Black Illinois Community Faced Raw Sewage Pollution for Years, Now Residents Are Fighting Back Filing A Lawsuit Against Utility Company 

A majority Black neighborhood in Illinois is using legal action after raw sewage allegedly discharged by a water utility company has polluted their communities for years. In late July, a lawsuit filed against water utility company Commonfields of Cahokia and Cahokia Heights on behalf of Centreville Citizens for Change.

Cahokia Heights, a Black suburb located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, which is composed of Alorton, Cahokia and Centreville, which merged earlier this year. Centerville, with a population of about 5,000, is 93 percent Black. The suit claims the water utility company has discharged raw sewage into the area in violation of the Clean Water Act. Around 54 homes in a 4.29 square-mile region have dealt with raw sewage in their yards and homes for years. The homes have malfunctioning pump systems are to blame for the issue, according to the suit. The sewage is allowed to flow into tributaries that merge with the Mississippi River, which violates the Clean Water Act.

Sharon and Bobby Smith, Cahokia residents, told NBC they haven’t been able to flush their toilet normally in over a year. Their home floods regularly and even in dry weather, sewage clogs pipes and leaves a lingering odor. Flooding and the chronic raw sewage problem is common among homes in Cahokia, and has prompted more than two dozen citizens.

The suit was filed by Equity Legal Services, Earthjustice and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Illinois.

The suit alleges, “raw sewage pools in yards, bubbles out of manholes, runs down neighborhood roadside ditches, and backs up into tubs, toilets, and sinks. … On one residential street, North 82nd Street, a fountain of raw sewage spews from Defendant Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District’s … sewage system on a nearly daily basis, even during dry weather conditions.”

The lawsuit seeks to end the discharges and seeks damages for the “many harms” suffered by Cahokia residents. Local lawmakers have stated the failure to fix the years-long problem in the mostly Black and low-income neighborhood is a “textbook example of environmental racism.”

In June, another lawsuit was filed against the Commonfields company and local government, claiming they were responsible for fixing the problem. The lawsuit asked the court to stop the defendants from diverting storm water to their properties along with replacing pump or lift stations in a 30-day period.

In late July, residents says at a press conference that no changes had been made except for the clearing of a canal. Yvette Lyles, has lived in the area for 28 years, says the living conditions in the area are “inhumane.”

“The American Dream was to work on a home and enjoy your home, not to become entrapped and enslaved by home repairs,” Lyles told the Bellville News-Democrat. ”We all need help and we deserve it. We live in the United States of America and we deserve to live like everyone else does.”

For a lot residents, the constant flooding has led to mold growth and repetitive, expensive home repairs. Some Cahokia residents aren’t drinking or using water from the tap, relying in part on bottled water donations collected by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The damage has only gotten worse over the years according to an engineer who surveyed the damage, 70 pump stations need to be repaired or replaced, 13 miles of sewer must be repaired, and 8 miles of new lines must be installed.

In April voters decided to dissolve Commonfields, now officials are working toward replacing the agency. The company and the city has asked the court for an extension  in responding to the allegations in the lawsuit. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued two separate orders requiring that Cahokia’s sanitary system be fixed, and that drinking water for residents be protected.

“With this enforcement action, EPA is rightfully recognizing that the people of Cahokia Heights’ health is the highest priority and is currently endangered by the state of their crumbling water systems,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said in the most recent order.

“Although this is a necessary step, it is a shame that these residents are in this situation at all. I am hopeful this action will help the city get back on the right track toward compliance and improving residents’ lives. I remain deeply concerned with the safety of the people of this city and the management of Cahokia Heights’ water systems. I will continue to work with the residents, local and state officials as well as EPA to make sure this system is repaired and the community health is protected.”

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