Majority Black Illinois town flooded with sewage

Whites began a mass exodus from Centreville in 1970, and the sewage-saturated town of about 5,000 is now nearly all-Black.

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The people of Centreville, Illinois have reportedly been dealing with sewage flooding their property for decades, but now, since the pandemic began keeping most Americans indoors, the issue is coming to a head.

Air in the town smells of sewage, and toilet paper and fecal matter are openly seen on grass. Residents refuse to drink water from its taps and have been using donated bottled water shipments to survive. 

A basement in Centreville, Illinois pictured just under a year ago shows the sewage flooding its residents want to bring attention to, issues they’ve reportedly had for two decades. (FOX2)

According to The Guardian, local elected officials have done nothing to stop or counteract the effects of the town’s widespread sewage problems, and residents believe that’s because Centreville is the poorest city in entire state of Illinois — and one of the poorest places in America — with a median household income of less than $15,000 per year. 

White residents began a mass exodus from Centreville in 1970, and now, the town with a current population of about 5,000 is nearly all-Black.

People like Olivia Dunn, 61, have been confined to their houses since the pandemic started. “I’m not trying to move out, I like my little spot,” she told the newspaper. “It’s very quiet, I like sitting out on the porch and looking at the trees. But it’s terrible the way the citizens are being treated. It makes me feel like I’m not a valued citizen.”

Centreville’s government has been extremely slow about enacting changes, and, according to Catherine Flowers, an environmental justice campaigner who helped write a study on sewage issues in low income communities in 2019,  these conditions can harm both mental and physical health. People there are worried about their lungs, and some have complained about bronchitis and asthma flare-ups. 

Read More: 2 ex-health officials charged with manslaughter in Flint

Last year, the nonprofit Equity Legal Services and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council filed a lawsuit with residents in order to get officials to pay attention to and pay for the damage they caused. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has reportedly known about the issue for years — as internal emails obtained by The Guardian revealed — and has either failed to act or simply not done enough.

“Illinois EPA has been working to get a full understanding of the concerns and conditions the community is facing related to stormwater/sewer concerns,” said an agency spokeswoman, who claimed it “remains committed to providing technical assistance and coordination efforts as this work progresses.”

Read More: Trust Issues: African Americans eroded affairs with the government and science

Frustrated Centreville residents have resorted to trying to fix the issues themselves. Patricia Greenwood, 71, says she spends $500 per year on bleach and sandbags to try and control the sewage leaks. Lester Goree said he’s “in the process of rebuilding [my front porch].”

“Every time it rains,” said the 63-year-old, “the wood and foundation gets damaged.”

Serious commitments and drastic measures will be needed in order to fix all of the issues that have arisen during this decades-long saga. Last year, referendum voters decided Centerville and the nearby towns of Alorton and Cahokia — that also have their own share of sewage problems — would be merged into one city named Cahokia Heights. Residents hope this may help get the entire area in southern Illinois the help it needs.

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