CENTREVILLE — Cornelius Bennett, 69, hauls wheelbarrows of lime to the corner of his home, hoping to mask the stench of the raw sewage that seeps from the ground. He often can’t flush his toilet. Ditches filled with stagnant water surround his house, where he and his wife care for their two grandchildren, ages 9 and 12.
Two miles away, Earlie Fuse, 79, had yet another basement wall collapse. After just minutes of steady rain, he can be trapped in his house by a moat of water.
Both men have complained about the problems for at least 15 years.
Now Bennett and Fuse are taking their fight to federal court. They are asking a judge to order local officials to do what they have long failed to: immediately fix the broken sewer and drainage systems endangering the lives and homes of Centreville residents.
“Absent intervention that requires proper placement of the stormwater and sanitary sewer infrastructure, Plaintiffs remain subjected to unending raw sewage overflows and stormwater flooding, left with no properties to enjoy and what, if any, remains of their homes to pass down,” states the lawsuit, filed this month in the U.S. District Court in East St. Louis.
The Post-Dispatch wrote about the problems plaguing Centreville — ranked last year as the poorest city in the nation — in a Feb. 23 story. The mostly African American city of about 5,000 people is just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
Wastewater and flooding are a constant for these residents, who watch as their homes deteriorate while public officials offer only temporary fixes.
In parts of the city, dirt trenches line the streets and drain runoff instead of storm drains. The trenches, however, have not been maintained. They fill with standing water and trash and overflow into yards and homes.
Some streets with storm drains are quickly overwhelmed in a downpour, flooding streets and trapping residents.
The city’s sewer system relies on nearly 30 above-ground pumps to move wastewater through the lines. Most are broken, however, overtaken by stormwater or overwhelmed by clogged lines.
With nowhere to go, wastewater bubbles out of manholes and into the streets, mixing with standing stormwater.
Residents are left with rotting floors, mold-covered walls and window sills, crumbling streets and a stomach-churning smell.
Some sewer lines and storm trenches have recently been cleared, providing temporary relief, but the lawsuit seeks permanent fixes and repairs to homes.
Coming rainy months and the COVID-19 pandemic also make the repairs more urgent.
“With research indicating the coronavirus can be detected in waste and uncertainty as to whether the virus can be transmitted via contact with waste, Plaintiffs find themselves in even more urgent circumstances requiring court intervention to prevent a potentially worsening public health crisis,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names the city of Centreville, the Township of Centreville and Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District — all of which are involved in oversight of parts of the sewer system — among defendants.
Also named are Centreville Mayor Marius “Mark” Jackson; Lamar Gentry, the administrator of the neighboring Village of Alorton; Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr.; and Dennis Traiteur, the water district’s superintendent.
Only one of the defendants could be reached for comment. No one picked up the phone at Centreville City Hall. A clerk who answered at Commonfields said most of the staff had been laid off and she had no way of calling Traiteur, but would leave him a note.
Gentry, the Alorton official, said Wednesday he had not yet seen the lawsuit and did not want to comment until speaking with the village attorney.
In March, residents approved a ballot initiative to combine the municipalities of Centreville and Alorton into one city named Alcentra, but the transition was put on hold because of the pandemic, Gentry said. Less than 2,000 people live in Alorton.
Seeking results, not money
The Centreville residents are represented by Equity Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to the poor, and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council, which investigates housing discrimination.
Residents began working with the legal service agencies about two years ago, after more than 20 years of little being done in response to their complaints. The various public agencies and utilities in charge blamed one another for the sewer and drainage problems.
Many of the affected residents are elderly and have lived in Centreville for decades. They worked blue-collar jobs, raised their children and paid off and invested in their homes. They overcame challenges of segregation and discrimination.
Now their homes assess for little. They can’t afford to move and start over.
“The Plaintiffs are adamant in their desire to remain in their homes,” especially given the importance of home ownership in attaining generational wealth, the lawsuit states. “For African Americans, attaining this tangible goal, despite the numerous barriers they encountered along the way, was and is a triumph.”
Bennett, a retired worker from Alton Southern Railroad, has lived in his home for 36 years. Fuse bought his home 28 years ago and worked two jobs as a steel worker and school janitor.
Though the legal service agencies are working with 60 Centreville families, the lawsuit involves just two residents — each living in separate hard-hit areas of the city.
“We hope this will systemically fix problems for the folks surrounding them too,” said attorney Nicole Nelson, founder of Equity Legal Services.
The lawsuit includes letters and reports over the past decade that document: numerous complaints made by residents, requests by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for remedy plans (which apparently went unanswered), and a Commonfields budget that showed 53% of funds allocated for “general office and overhead” and none allocated for emergency sewer repairs or improvements.
“A city does not become the poorest in the nation overnight. Raw sewage does not simply begin flowing into yards and into homes over the course of one day. Manholes do not immediately become over capacity, nor pump stations intended to push wastewater to treatment plants suddenly stand dilapidated in ditches and on the side of roads in barely operable condition,” the lawsuit states. “These conditions occur due to a string of collective decisions not to invest in a community.”
The plaintiffs are not seeking money. They are asking for immediate fixes to the stormwater and sewer systems, including replacing the broken pump stations within 30 days; as well as repairs to their homes.
Nelson said the defendants are expected to be served with the lawsuit this week, and they will have 21 days to file a response with the court.