Less than five miles from East St. Louis and located on a Mississippi River floodplain sits Centreville IL, the poorest city in the nation. Due to outdated and ineffective drainage systems, the predominately African American residents are besieged by persistent flooding and homes permeated with raw sewage. Many fear their drinking water supply is tainted and their lives hang in the balance when flash flooding occurs – filled with human waste, streets become impassable and emergency services can’t get through.
Like most community members, Earlie Fuse has lost a lot. The 80-year old’s home has seen saturated mud and floodwaters breach his basement wall five times, ruining water heaters, furnaces, and lifelong possessions. His front yard becomes a fetid lake when it rains and his wife left seven years ago under the strain of perpetual flooding. He doesn’t want to leave his home of 29 years and he can’t afford to move.
In October of 2018, local lawyers Nicole Nelson of Equity Legal Services and Kalila Jackson of Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council worked with residents to form Centreville Citizens for Change (CCC), a resident committee that mobilizes to advocate for changes in their community specifically their current hazardous environmental conditions. The CCC and the legal team have partnered with scientists at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Williams College for help with flooding mitigation strategies and surface and drinking water concerns.
Environmental justice groups including Anthropocene Alliance, Earth Justice, The Urban League of Metro St. Louis, and the National Resources Defense Council have helped provide technical, legal, and grant assistance.
In June 2020, Nelson and Jackson filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents Earlie Fuse and Cornelius Bennett against the City and Township of Centreville and Commonfields of Cahokia, the entities responsible for the wastewater systems in Centreville. The suit contends that local and officials have known about the flooding issues for years, yet have failed to take suitable action in the poor and predominantly Black community of Centreville. Set for trial in early 2022, the case primarily seeks improvements to the infrastructure connected to the plaintiffs’ homes after years of institutional neglect. “Plaintiffs can no longer sustain the physical, mental, and financial burdens of these dysfunctional sewer and storm water systems and the rainy days which further exacerbate current terrible and unhealthy conditions.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, elected officials such as U.S. senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin have visited the city pledging support for fixing the sewage and flooding issues. A $919,869 grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will study reducing stormwater runoff, fixing minor sewage system infrastructure, and using the best practices for managing rainfall. As well, Centreville officials applied with adjacent communities for a $22 million FEMA grant earlier this year to assist with flooding and sewage problems. Residents and community advocates are cautiously optimistic.
One of the attorneys working with Centreville Citizens for Change, Nicole Nelson, hopes to see authentic collaboration among all stakeholders, “not just like superficial soundbite collaboration that they can give to the media just to save face (about) collaboration,” Nelson said. “I want them genuinely doing it and then taking that feedback they get from the community and actually implementing that or changing course, depending on what the feedback is. That’s what collaboration means, not just hearing what people say and doing what you want to do. It’s taking the feedback and adjusting the plans because the residents are experts more than anyone else.”
Written by Kerri McLean