CAHOKIA HEIGHTS — Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced Tuesday that the city of Cahokia Heights will receive $21 million in state funding to rebuild the city’s sewer system that has left residents with grappled with raw sewage in their homes and streets for years.
The money will come from the Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan, which was signed into law in 2019 and invests more than $45 billion over six years in improving infrastructure.
The announcement comes after historic flooding last week left residents of the Eastern Metro Area struggling with standing water and plumbing issues longer than other areas.
Earlie Fuse, 81, of Cahokia Heights, said for five days he was unable to flush the toilet or drive his truck. He continues to pump water from his basement.
“I had 2½ feet of water in my basement this morning from seepage,” Fuse said Wednesday. “I’m going to pump all night tonight and tomorrow.”
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In February 2020, the Post-Dispatch wrote about flooding and sewer overflows that have plagued the town, located just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis, for decades.
Resident after resident, mostly elderly and black, shared stories of repeatedly trying to get local and state officials to fix broken sewer system pumps, check pipes sewers and cleaning overgrown drainage channels.
During this time, houses and streets deteriorated. The rain ditches surrounding the houses were continuously filled with dirty water. Residents feared using water from their taps.
“No community should have to go without clean water and functioning waste treatment infrastructure…” Pritzker said. “True justice and true fairness means a safe house, clean streets, clean water and clean air.”
The city will immediately receive nearly $10 million to replace or repair 35 lift stations and connect more than 9,000 feet of sewer lines, including the city’s main trunk line, state officials said.
The rest will eventually be used for upgrades that will improve the efficiency of the sewer system, helping to prevent floodwaters from entering and overwhelming the system, and maintenance.
Residents said their complaints to authorities over the years had been singled out among state agencies and temporary solutions.
Some residents of the former town of Centerville (now part of Cahokia Heights) began working together in 2019, with help from Equity Legal Services and the Metropolitan St. Louis Housing Opportunity Council, to lobby for change.
The group has since filed two lawsuits seeking redress and caught the attention of two US senators from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, who visited and called for federal intervention.
In May 2021, Centerville merged with neighboring Cahokia and Alorton to become the City of Cahokia Heights with a population of 27,000.
Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. pledged to fix the sewer system when he took office, but residents have been frustrated by the pace and lack of communication.
Many officials in the new city government are the same ones who have been in charge for decades – serving as elected officials, board members and employees for old towns and sewer services .
McCall could not be reached for comment.
Nicole Nelson, a solicitor at Equity Legal Services, said she was concerned local authorities lacked the expertise to carry out appropriate repairs, as history has shown.
“Our legal team and the community continue to ask what are the oversight mechanisms for this extremely large amount of money going to these people who have a history of not allocating it properly, not allocating it at all or to use it for their own personal gain?” said Nelson.
“It’s a big influx of money,” she said, “but it will go into the hands of the same people who have been at the helm for decades.”
The governor’s office has promised that the Illinois EPA will work closely with city officials to ensure that grant funds are used to address chronic problems in the system. As part of the grant agreement, city officials must provide regular updates to the community via a webpage and regular meetings.
Fuse said while repairs to the sewer system will prevent future damage, he needs relief now. His home has been flooded so many times he needs redemption, he said. He doesn’t expect to get back the amount he paid or put into his house, but enough for a 42 inch high concrete slab on which he could set up a mobile home in his backyard would be nice , he said.
“I’ve lived with this for 29 years, and it’s too long to keep anything in the freezer,” Fuse said. “You wouldn’t want something after he was in the cooler after 29 years.”