CAHOKIA HEIGHTS — Attorneys representing a group of Cahokia Heights residents are seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit alleging the city is violating the Clean Water Act by allowing sewage to overflow into the Mississippi River, including as recently as last month.
Summary judgment, they say, would mean that at least part of the residents’ lawsuit, filed in August of 2021, will not have be decided by a jury, freeing up legal resources and hopefully leading to quicker repairs to the sewer system. The trial is currently scheduled for October 2024.
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“We don’t really need to go to trial over this. The court can just rule that the Clean Water Act has been violated, and we can just then focus on how to remedy that problem,” said Courtney Bowie, managing attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization representing residents.
The part of the lawsuit seeking compensation for damages to homes and neighborhoods from sewer overflows would still continue towards a trial, Bowie said.
The federal Clean Water Act protects the water quality of the nation’s waterways. According to the motion for summary judgment, filed last week, at least one cleanout pipe on North 82nd Street in the city has been spilling sewage since at least 2008, documented more than 90 times by inspectors in the past four years.
The sewage flows between homes to stormwater ditches that eventually lead to the Mississippi River as well as the 80-acre Grand Marais Lake in Frank Holten State Recreation Area. The lake is used for fishing and boating.
The latest sewer overflow was noted by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors on Feb. 9 after nearly an inch of rainfall. Sewage was not only flowing from the 82nd Street pipe, but also bubbling up from a ditch a couple blocks away and flowing into stormwater ditches.
Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Jr. did not respond to requests for comment.
In February 2020, the Post-Dispatch first wrote about the flooding and sewer overflows plaguing the town of Centreville, one of the poorest cities in the country, sitting in view of the Gateway Arch just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
Residents shared stories of worsening damage to their homes over the past 20 to 30 years. Lift stations designed to move sewage were broken and flooded. Residents tried repeatedly to get local officials to make repairs, but were met with finger-pointing among public agencies and temporary fixes.
Residents formed Centreville Citizens for Change, which, along with about 30 other residents, eventually filed the federal lawsuit in July 2021. Centreville has since merged with the cities of Alorton and Cahokia to become Cahokia Heights.
Also in August 2021, EPA issued an administrative order requiring Cahokia Heights to submit a plan to identify and address sanitary sewer overflows in the city.
The city has made progress on eliminating sewer overflows during dry weather, improving staffing and developing maintenance programs, according to a statement by the EPA.
“The order is intended to address the most immediate issues with the sewer system and investigate and plan for long-term, system-wide fixes that are likely to take many years to complete,” an agency spokeswoman said.
City officials have been trying to seek money to rebuild its wastewater system. In August 2022, about $21 million in state funding was promised for improvements, with nearly $10 million to immediately go towards repairing 35 lift stations and more than 9,000 feet of sewer lines.
The money, however, comes with oversight measures requested by residents to make sure it is being spent properly on long-term fixes, which has delayed delivery of the funds.
Bowie said while the city laments about the expense of repairs, her clients have been stripped of the generational wealth they could have accumulated in their houses.
“I’m not sure my clients are in position to want to hear about the city’s inability to fix the problem, she said, “when they have done what they were expected to do in terms of paying their taxes, paying their bills and buying their homes.”