Minnesota Amish Community Fights Wastewater Rules

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Members of a southeastern Minnesota Amish community claim in court that municipal and state wastewater ordinances forcing them to install treatment systems violate their religious beliefs against modern conveniences.

Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast and Sam Miller – all members of the Swartzentruber Amish community – sued the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County on Friday in Ramsey County District Court.

According to the lawsuit, the Swartzentruber Amish community is an “old order” Amish society whose members believe their religion should be both practiced and translated into daily living in their homes.

The lawsuit focuses on how Swartzentruber and his members dispose of household water called “greywater,” which is used for indoor household duties like washing dishes, bathing and laundry before it is reused in fields and gardens.

In December 2013, Fillmore County adopted its sub-surface sewage treatment ordinance in response to a state law requiring counties to enact local ordinances that comply with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s sewage treatment system rules.

According to the complaint, the MPCA’s greywater rules mandate water tank size based on bedroom size.

“For a home of three bedrooms or less, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s rules require a tank liquid capacity of 750 gallons….For a home of four to five bedrooms, the rules require a tank liquid capacity of 1,000 gallons,” the complaint states.

Swartzentruber says Fillmore County’s ordinance has “alternative local standards” for greywater that requires a tank capacity of 1,000 gallons regardless of bedroom size, which applies to the county’s Amish community.

The plaintiffs claim the county’s ordinance is more burdensome to their community than the MPCA’s rules for greywater disposal.

Swartzentruber says his community has been denied zoning permits by Fillmore County for their alleged failure to dispose their greywater in a way that complies with the county’s ordinance and MPCA rules.

“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County are requiring plaintiffs to install wastewater treatment systems to process the disposal of indoor household water,” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs believe that installation and use of these wastewater systems is contrary to their religious faith and, if they comply with this policy, they will have to answer for this utilization of wastewater systems at the Day of Judgment.”

The Swartzentruber Amish community has also been sued by the county over the regulations and threatened with condemnation and eviction from their homes as well as criminal charges and garnishment of their personal property for alleged debt owed to Fillmore County, according to the lawsuit.

“The County of Fillmore has sought court orders permitting the government to render plaintiffs’ homes uninhabitable by: removing windows and doors of their homes, dismantling plumbing, removing stoves and other sources of heat for failure to install septic and/or greywater systems. The County has also sought to assess to plaintiffs the cost of the destruction of their homes,” the complaint states.

In April 2016, the MPCA also filed 23 civil lawsuits against members of the Swartzentruber Amish community, seeking administrative penalties for failure to comply with its greywater rules, the complaint states.

But Swartzentruber says the methods his community has chosen to manage their greywater – including recycling water and water byproducts associated with clothes washing, bathing and food preparation for use in their crops fields and gardens – do not pose any imminent public health threat.

Schwartzentruber claims Fillmore County and the MPCA have violated the Minnesota and U.S. Constitutions and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The plaintiffs seek a ruling allowing them to retain, recycle, reuse or establish alternate safe systems for disposing their household water.

They are represented by Brian Lipford with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

MPCA spokesperson Cathy Rofshus said in a statement, “Everybody needs to properly dispose of their wastewater to protect human and environmental health.”

“Fillmore County has been working since 2006 to bring Amish properties into compliance with state laws on treating gray water. This water, used for washing and other purposes, is considered sewage and can contain pollutants such as bacteria and pathogens. (Washing includes laundering diapers with human waste.),” she said. “It’s especially important to properly treat sewage in Fillmore County, where the karst landscape is vulnerable to pollution. In karst, pollutants can easily reach groundwater used for drinking and streams used for recreation because of the water mixing through porous bedrock.” (Parentheses in original.)

Rofshus noted that several Amish families have complied with wastewater treatment rules, but a few dozen property owners have not.

“After the county and MPCA met several times with Amish representatives, the agency started enforcement action with notices of violations that included fines. One Amish property owner agreed to put in a system and the agency waived his penalty. Another 22 ended up in Fillmore County court in fall 2016, with the state and county prevailing. In other words, the judge agreed that the Amish must comply with the laws on treating their gray water,” she said. “The MPCA and Fillmore County have been patient and accommodating. The county adopted rules that allow for low-flow systems. These systems can be designed to operate by gravity instead of electricity.”

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