Posted on February 17, 2021

The Majority-Black Town Flooded with Sewage

Catharine Smith, The Guardian, February 11, 2021

Sharon Smith has to plunge her toilet to get it to flush. On rainy days, wastewater spills into her yard from nearby drainage ditches. Twice in the last year her house has flooded, leaving behind the sickening smell of sewage, she said.


For decades, residents of Centreville, a nearly all-Black town of 5,000 in southern Illinois, just a 12-minute drive from downtown East St Louis, have been dealing with persistent flooding and sewage overflows. The smell of it is in the air all over town after a rain, and bits of soggy toilet paper and slicks of human waste cling to the grass in neighborhoods where children used to play on warm days, locals said. Kids don’t play outside any more. Gardens don’t grow.

Like Smith, other locals say their water tastes odd and refuse to drink from their taps, relying on donated shipments of bottled water. They worry about the long-term health effects of living under such conditions, and they say that for years elected officials and local utility companies inadequately addressed their cries for help.

Residents and environmental justice advocates also believe that these issues persist because the town is one of the poorest in America, with a median household income of less than $15,000 a year and almost half of residents living below the poverty line. They contend that authorities at the local and state level might have addressed wastewater problems long ago if the area was wealthier and more influential.

There has been some hope for change more recently. Last summer, with the help of two non-profits, two residents filed a lawsuit alleging that local politicians and the sewer authority failed to invest sufficiently in repairs and maintenance, despite being aware of the problems for years. The case, which does not seek financial compensation, goes to trial in October, pressing for improvements to the infrastructure connected to the plaintiffs’ homes after years of institutional neglect.


Centreville’s mayor, Marius Jackson, a defendant in the suit, said in an interview that he knows about some of the town’s flooding issues, though he said he was not aware of the extent of the sewage or drinking water problems. Community activists say Jackson has been a no-show at various meetings revolving around the city’s sanitation issues, including one held with Senator Tammy Duckworth last summer. Jackson also said that Centreville would need help from the federal government to address its infrastructure issues. “Financially, a job like that, our city can’t handle it,” he said.


Situated in a low-lying area of the Mississippi River basin, close enough to downtown St Louis that the Gateway Arch can be seen from one part of town, Centreville is prone to flooding. Its wastewater system, a combination of open drainage ditches and ageing underground pipes and pumps, feeds into networks from neighboring towns, which also experience backup and overflow issues. Leaks, floods and damage to parts of the system often go unaddressed for long periods of time, according to complaints from residents and public records.

While neighboring cities have similar obstacles, Centreville faces a perfect storm of factors that mean confronting its sanitation crisis has at times felt insurmountable: in addition to its failing infrastructure and geography, it also must contend with temporary fixes from a slow city government that can make things worse. The city has paved over manhole covers, which have been known to spout sewer water-like geysers when the system is particularly overwhelmed. And a large sinkhole in the middle of the road in the Piat Place neighborhood, where Smith lives, is said to have gone unaddressed for about a year.

Though Centreville was once a larger town, it has lost more than half its population and nearly all its white inhabitants since 1970.

Surrounding towns saw a similar shift, as local manufacturing jobs disappeared. The people of color who remain in Centreville are stuck with ageing infrastructure meant for a denser population – and the local government now has a much smaller tax base to draw from for upgrades.


Sewage infrastructure failures can harm mental and physical health, as well as earning potential, Flowers and her co-authors concluded in their study. Living in close contact with raw sewage can lead to a number of health problems, including gastrointestinal illness from bacteria and breathing difficulties from indoor mold. In the rural areas they examined, Black, Latinx and indigenous communities, as well as people in poverty, bear an outsized share of the burden, the authors wrote.


Patricia Greenwood, 71, estimated that she spent at least $500 a year on bleach, sandbags and other items. But nothing ever gets the smell of mold out of the walls in her home. Her brother, who lives across the river in St Louis, stopped by her house last July, shortly after a flood, and noticed the mixture of mud and feces smeared across her lawn. {snip}

“Who wants everybody to know that your house smells? That your room is caving in? Who wants to tell people you have bugs? You want to be like everyone else, to sit on your porch. You don’t want them to know that you want to vomit when you walk inside,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood said that when her family moved to Centreville in the 1960s, things were different. “If all of those white people were still here, this wouldn’t happen,” she said.