Bobby and Sharon Smith haven’t flushed their toilet normally in more than a year, reports NBC News.
On heavy rainfall days, floodwaters encroach on the modest home they’ve owned since the 1980s in southwestern Illinois. Even during dry weather, raw sewage can clog the pipes, leaving a foul, lingering stench and requiring perpetual repairs with which the couple, in their 60s, can barely keep up.
“It’s horrible,” Sharon Smith, a local school district employee who also shares the home with her two children, said recently. “My floors, they buckled up. In my kitchen, the bottom of my sink is rotted out, and it’s starting to sink in.”
The Smiths’ struggle to live free from chronic sewage pollution is common across their section of Cahokia Heights, a small, predominantly Black suburb located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis and formed earlier this year from the merger of three communities strained by population loss and aging infrastructure.
The environmental challenges have spiraled into what the group Centreville Citizens for Change says is a crisis, prompting the federal government to step in twice this month and more than two dozen residents, including the Smiths, to file a federal lawsuit in July alleging that decades of government failure to ensure basic sewage and stormwater services … “have created an environmental injustice for this Black community.”
The “negligence” by the city and local public water district to maintain the sewage and stormwater systems in turn has created a revolting scenario in which “raw sewage pools in yards, bubbles out of manholes, runs down neighborhood roadside ditches, and backs up into tubs, toilets and sinks,” according to the suit. “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.”
Longtime residents who have been living in the community pre-merger, when it was the independent city of Centreville, say they don’t trust the water or drink from the tap. For the past two years, a nonprofit organization, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, has helped to collect bottled water donations.
“This really is a story about indifference and neglect,” said Kalila Jackson, a staff attorney with the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, which is representing residents in their suit along with the nonprofit law organization Equity Legal Services in Belleville, Illinois. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, is representing Centreville Citizens for Change in the complaint.
The effort to mobilize in a quest for improved living conditions comes at a pivotal moment of renewed attention on America’s infrastructure under the Biden administration and as Washington’s elected officials debate how to heap billions of dollars on projects to upgrade roads, public transportation, water and broadband.