A group of Swartzentruber Amish in southeastern Minnesota are requesting a continuance in a three-year legal battle surrounding the use of laundry water for irrigation and a state agency that won’t allow it.
In Fillmore County, a community of about 3,500 Amish reside in rural areas.
“The county and state officials have been treating them terrible,” said Lawrence Heimsoth, who lives in nearby Canton, Minn. “They are threatening them with jail, fines, community service and possibly taking their farms away.
“This is all because they want to use their laundry water for irrigation. This is something they allow in a lot of other states, but Minnesota and our county are trying to put them in jail for doing it.”
Heimsoth, who labels himself a “hometown resident of Canton and advocate for Amish who reside in his native Fillmore County, said the Swartzentruber Amish are “meek, sincere, peaceful citizens who just want to live their lives and practice their religion.”
The state doesn’t agree.
On April 22, Judge Joseph Chase ruled that four members of the Amish community in Fillmore County were not exempt from county and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requirements that rural residences have subsurface sewage systems for disposing of residential waste water.
The four men — Ammo Mast, Menno Mast, Sam Miller and Ammon Swartzentruber — filed suit in April 2017 against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County over concerns that the state agency and county were requiring them to install a wastewater system for “gray water.”
Per court documents, the plaintiffs argued that installing such a system went against their religious faith.
From the bench, Chase disagreed.
“This is a situation in which the Amish cannot, despite their most sincere efforts, be separate from the world,” he wrote in his ruling. “All water is connected, and all of us, Amish and English alike, drink from the same aquifers.”
Chase ruled that the county’s and state’s “public health and environmental safety interests cannot be accomplished by a less religiously intrusive alternative means.”
In 2013, Minnesota passed a law requiring counties to create and enact local ordinances that comply with changes to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s sewage-treatment system within two years. All homes were to have a holding tank for wastewater, with the size determined by the number of bedrooms in the home.
In Fillmore County, “alternative local standards” were approved for the Amish community that required a 1,000-gallon tank, regardless of the number of bedrooms.
But the Amish refused to make the mandated changes.
A $1,000 fine was imposed in February 2016 after the changes weren’t made, which ultimately led to the aforementioned lawsuit.
In a related case involving Swartzentruber Amish residents Eli D. and Ida Hershberger, an appeal has been made to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Attorney Brian N. Lipford, who represents the Hershbergers, as well as the four men in Fillmore County, alleges that 40 percent of the lawsuits initiated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over the past three years have been against members of the Swartzentruber Amish community in Fillmore County, despite the community only having 3,500 residents in a state of 5.5 million.
In Webster County, there are nearly 4,000 Amish residents in the Highway A and Highway C communities, with all of them being Old Order Amish.
Most of the Amish in Webster County live within 10 miles of Seymour, with a majority living within a five-mile radius.
The Missouri Department of Health has jurisdiction over individual wastewater systems that have a designed or actual flow of 3,000 gallons per day or less.
Webster County also has additional regulations regarding individual wastewater systems, and the Amish community complies with county and state laws.
Webster County’s Amish community now has the largest population of all Amish communities in the state.