Erin Allen: I'm Erin Allen and this is The Rundown. If you've never heard of Dixmoor, it's a small suburb south of Chicago with a majority black and Latin X population. Dixmoor has been struggling to consistently provide clean safe water to its residents. And the issue has been snowballing over the last year in the city with more water main breaks at greater frequencies. Residents and city leaders say it can no longer be ignored. WBEZ's Adora Namigadde has a story on why improvements may be hard to come by.
Adora Namigadde: Dixmoor resident Al Messmerr is fed up with the water supply there.
Al Messmerr: You would take a shower, it burns your eyes because they put so much chlorine in it. It's not safe. It burns your eyes just to take a shower. It's that bad.
Adora Namigadde: He's lived in Modern Estates Trailer Park for 14 years.
Al Messmerr: And I say, we do you get diarrhea. He get sore throat problems and your skin falls off. We've been dealing with that for a long, long time now.
Adora Namigadde: When he's not dealing with poor water quality, sometimes the water is just shut off. Messmerr and his neighbors were under a water state of emergency and boil order earlier this year because of water main breaks. They've become a pretty common occurrence. A big water main break last October meant no running water throughout the majority Black low income village for two weeks. Then there was one in July that left Messmerr and his residents at the trailer park without water for several days. And just this August, three elementary schools missed the first day back over a water main break. Village President, Fitzgerald Roberts says this keeps happening because the infrastructure in Dixmoor is so old.
Fitzgerald Roberts: Pipes are corroded when they get a certain amount of pressure in the lines, or it finds the weakest point and they pop.
Adora Namigadde: But the aging infrastructure is only one issue contributing to the Dixmoor water problems. Roberts says Dixmoor simply does not have the financial resources to fix the problem on its own. Part of that is because of disinvestment. Dixmoor lies in Illinois State Representative Will Davis' jurisdiction. Davis says companies are not exactly flocking to Dixmoor. The departure of the town's former main employer, steel mill Wyman-Gordon was a huge hit to the tax base.
Will Davis: They are doing everything they can. Many of them are new and they inherited huge problems that they're trying to figure out how to address.
Adora Namigadde: Although the tax base has shrunk, Village President Roberts says the village has allocated money toward the issue, but he does not have an exact dollar figure. And it's hard to check up on. Dixmoor has not filed paperwork with the state comptroller detailing their finances in years, and Roberts doesn't know what money is available right now.
Fitzgerald Roberts: Really, I would have to speak with my treasurer on that particular issue to see what we can do. All we can do is, right now we're going into debt with these pipes.
Adora Namigadde: It's not clear how much debt. WBEZ tried to reach the village economic development head John Thompson for two months, but he did not respond to our emails or phone calls. And as for the missing paperwork, Roberts says his administration is back completing audits that the administration before his failed to file. Those audits must be filed in order. And so far, his administration has caught up to 2017. In the meantime, Representative Davis says he regularly reaches out to state agencies like the Natural Resources Department and the EPA to try to get funding for Dixmoor and surrounding suburbs that experience similar problems. And Davis says there needs to be a long term plan to address the issue
Will Davis: If we, if there's no long term plan to try to address needs over a period of time when it blows up the large sums of money sometimes that they need aren't always available.
Adora Namigadde: It's all a bit chaotic. Dixmoor cannot afford to replace its aging infrastructure, but its lack of financial records means city leaders don't know how much money they have to fix the issue, if any. And without a major employer in the predominantly impoverished community, there's no tax base to pull from. Some band-aids are available. Earlier this spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it will spend $2 million dollars constructing 3,600 feet of water line that will run under Interstate 57, including in Dixmoor. That project starts in spring next year. For Al Messmerr at Modern Estates, fixes don't usually bring long term change.
Al Messmerr: With the water plumbing system, have been terrible for the last seven years. And most people come here to replace the water main more than five times in the last seven years, and then every time they fix it. It breaks.
Adora Namigadde: But until the water runs clear and clean, hope is hard to come by for people like Messmerr.
Erin Allen: Wow, every time they fix it, it breaks. That was Adora Namigadde and she's here to tell us more about what she found while reporting in Dixmoor. Adora, hi.
Adora Namigadde: Hi Erin.
Erin Allen: Welcome.
Adora Namigadde: Thank you.
Erin Allen: So we're both from Michigan where the infamous and very tragic Flint water crisis happened. And not only were there health implications, but there were very real issues that people had to deal with as far as their water bills. What does that look like in Dixmoor? Are folks expected to pay their bills at the full amount, despite all of this?
Adora Namigadde: In terms of how it plays out in Dixmoor, I've talked to a lot of residents who complain about detrimental impacts on the water, for example, saying that the water is yellow, saying that it feels chemically over processed, it stings their eyes, it stings their skin... people like Al Messmerr, whom you heard from in my feature. And then also, some people have told me that their water bills have been slowly increasing. I haven't been able to get a steady amount of how much they've been increasing, but people have been saying, I'm paying more for my water, and it's lower in quality.
Erin Allen: So how else is this affecting people's pockets like they're having to buy bottled water. They're having to boil water...
Adora Namigadde: It's really both. Some people are boiling water now, just as a standard practice, even when they're not under boil order by the village. For example, I spoke to a woman who didn't want to name herself to WBEZ because she complains a lot to her property management. But she gets rides out of town and brings back water to Dixmoor to be able to use.
Dixmoor Resident: I'm not able to drive, so I save jugs from vinegar, whatever I can get my hands on. And I have to find someone to give me a ride to a friend's house to fill jugs with water, so I can have coffee, feed, give my pets clean, fresh water. I also am buying probably about $20 worth of bottled water a month.
Adora Namigadde: So not only is she spending more money on being able to access water and having to go out of town to get some. She's also said that her water bill has been increasing.
Dixmoor Resident: So I'm paying about $90 for water and sewer here, which to a lot of people with homes, it's no big deal, but it is here.
Adora Namigadde: So she told me that her water bill went from $35 to $45, and then up to $90 in less than a span of a year.
Erin Allen: Okay, wow. So is the city or state subsidizing any of these added costs?
Adora Namigadde: Unfortunately, no, the village is not able to subsidize the cost of water because they have a shrinking tax base. So there's really no money to even pull from. And the village tries to secure grant funding through the state and through the county. And it's done so successfully on some occasions, but that's where they get supplemental help.
Erin Allen: Okay, so people are boiling water. They're using bottled water. They're reducing their water usage altogether in Dixmoor, what are other alternatives that people are exploring?
Adora Namigadde: It pretty much depends on how bad a particular water main break is. A lot of people that I've met, there over the course of this past year and reporting on the issues there, they just kind of deal with it. They're just like, this is part of life here. And I have to deal with it. And I don't have money to deal with it otherwise. In October, some people were going to a campsite at a nearby village to go take showers there.
Erin Allen: That's serious when you gotta like, be outside at a campsite.
Adora Namigadde: It's problematic. I know. It was really shocking, honestly, to learn about. And really sad, because like I said, a lot of people just don't have the resources to do things any other way.
Erin Allen: Wow. I almost don't want to hear the answer to this. But is Dixmoor the only area in the south suburbs experiencing these issues with water?
Adora Namigadde: It's not a good answer. A lot of the predominantly Black and Latino suburbs down there are experiencing similar issues to Dixmoor in terms of water control. When I was down there back in October, I met Cook County Board Commissioner Deborah Sims, and she was telling me just how widespread the issue is. She serves the fifth district and that's where Dixmoor is.
Deborah Sims: Not only in Dixmoor, but we have a problem in Ford Heights, we got a problem in Robins. We have a lot of problems with the water situation throughout the south suburbs. The pipes underground or are corroded. You know, people are spending more money to get water and the water seeping into the ground.
Erin Allen: Wow. So that's a whole other rabbit hole. Coming back to your story, it ends with folks talking about long term planning to address the issue. What's next in that process?
Adora Namigadde: So the next step is Dixmoor got a grant from the US Army Corps of Engineers. They're going to come in and install water line in the village and hopefully that helps lead to some long term fixes. Otherwise, we at WBEZ are just trying to get more information on the financial state of Dixmoor to see really what can be done.
Erin Allen: Okay, we'll be looking out for what happens in the next coming months. Adora Namigadde is a Metro reporter with WBEZ Chicago. Adora, thank you so much for your work on this.
Adora Namigadde: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Erin Allen: And that's it today for The Rundown. Talk to you again tomorrow morning.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.