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FEMA Grant Could Relieve Effects of ‘Environmental Racism’

For decades, residents in Centreville, Ill., and other economically challenged cities in the area have suffered from sewage and flooding problems that could be addressed by a $22 million FEMA grant.

Flooding in a park around two tree trunks; two pedestrians walk by in the distance.
When you consider that Centreville, Ill., is one of the poorest cities in the state, it’s easy to see how the city’s flooding and sewage problems have plagued it for decades without help. 

But there is hope that all with those problems on the radar of some in higher government, things will change. With the support of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who called the situation “a textbook example of environmental racism,” Centreville, Cahokia and Alorton hope to share $22 million through a FEMA BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) grant.  

The grant will supply funds to repair and maintain sewage systems in the area that have long been neglected. Residents have, for decades, routinely experienced yards and houses flooded with sewage, with little or no help from officials. Residents filed a lawsuit last summer seeking help with the sewage and flooding issues

“We believe that this grant will fix our sewage problem, but there is also a drainage problem,” said Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall, who will become mayor of Cahokia in May. 

McCall described these cities as a “bottomlands,” where runoff from local bluffs drains. The cities also rest on what was historically the Mississippi River band in the flood plain. “The flooding is an issue that has been around all my life,” McCall said. “I’m 59 and I lived in Centreville and when I was a kid there was flooding on my streets.” 

The cities are not unlike countless others around the country that face additional risk from environmental factors and natural hazards because of economic disadvantages and/or race.  

“Hundreds of studies have shown that racially marginalized communities and indigenous communities, and also working class white communities, are disproportionately burdened by environmental harms such as these,” said Dr. Jill Lindsey Harrison, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

“We call these environmental inequities or injustices, and they stem from a lot of different historical factors,” Harrison said. “Most people think this stems from intentionally discriminatory practices where industries choose their sites.” 

Indeed, residents in Centreville and surrounding cities migrated from the South to this area in the '50s and '60s to work in the industrial plants.These plants used to use ground water to cool refineries, but when the EPA halted the practice in the 1970s, that ground water began to build up, exacerbating the flooding and sewage issues.  

“This [environmental racism] has been documented probably since Hurricane Katrina where it was for everyone to see; there was no longer any argument,” said Dr. Earthea Nance, associate professor at Texas Southern University. “We’re using the fact that the governor is trying to use that issue to fix this situation.” 

It took support from Gov. Pritzker, Sen. Tammy Duckworth and others to put together the application for the FEMA grant. “We reached out to our state reps and they reached out to our federal representatives, and they are pushing the funding through FEMA to help us get awarded the grant,” McCall said.  

Whether the cities are granted the money won’t be known until December.  

“You have a sewage system that is aging like most of the infrastructure throughout our country, and you have cities in poverty and none of them could do it by themselves,” McCall said. “They needed county, state and federal help to alleviate the sanitation problem, but once that is addressed we have to come back and look at the drainage problem.”  

Citizens have, for decades, complained about flooding issues that have all but destroyed their homes yet were never addressed by the local governments. It’s something that continues to plague certain communities during environmental disasters and other matters, including the current pandemic.  

“You see a number of folks suffer more than others around this pandemic where we’ve seen how deadly it can be to people with preexisting conditions and those in marginalized communities that get hit harder,” said Dr. David Pellow, director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Communities that are marginalized economically or culturally have had to deal with this going back decades.”