Kansas county clashes with Amish over outhouses

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 26, 2012 3:55 PM
Kansas county clashes with Amish over outhouses

By Kevin Murphy

FORT SCOTT, Kansas (Reuters) - The simple way of Amish life is a bit too simple for one Kansas county, which wants outhouses on their farms to be upgraded and an end to plowing raw human sewage into the fields.

Officials in Bourbon County want Amish families to stop using outhouses unless they comply with codes requiring waste disposal tanks. That would be costly and unnecessary, say Amish homeowners.

The local Amish families, who do not use running water or electricity in their homes, periodically remove waste from pits beneath the outhouses and plow it into fields.

"Is there any evidence we are polluting anything, contaminating anything?" asked Amish farmer Chris Borntrager at a meeting of the Bourbon County Commission last week.

Harold Coleman, chairman of the commission, said he had no answer to that question but that the county requires holding tanks and he cited a state law against burying human waste.

Eight Amish men in handmade work clothes, straw hats and long beards attended the county commission meeting Friday. They live 10 miles outside of Fort Scott, the county seat.

The Amish began settling near Fort Scott seven years ago and there are now 25 families there, Borntrager said. The outhouse issue was not brought up until this spring when two neighbors complained.

Amish people have run into problems elsewhere in the United States about their outhouses, but not very often, said Steven M. Nolt, professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana and the author or co-author of 10 books about the Amish. In 2009, an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania was sentenced to 90 days in jail for not bringing outhouses into code compliance.

Some larger, more contemporary Amish settlements have indoor plumbing, Nolt said.

"A lot of newer and smaller settlements such as the one in Kansas are more conservative and are trying to move away from the more worldly settlements," Nolt said.

DELAYED ACTION

Some Bourbon County officials conceded that the county's waste disposal ordinance should have been enforced when the Amish first started moving in.

"Nobody wanted to get involved in the government-religion thing," said Tom McNeil, county sanitation director, who was not in office seven years ago. "It was better to stay out of it. But that's where we dropped the ball."

Under county rules, the outhouses have to be connected to a 1,500-gallon holding tank partly filled with water, at an estimated installation cost of $1,000. Families would also have to pay to have it pumped out every year or two, McNeil said.

"I have been where there is a toilet on top of a holding tank and I guarantee you the smell is a far cry worse than an ordinary toilet over a pit," Borntrager said.

The other alternative is to install a septic tank with a drain line, but that requires running water.

A third option being explored by the commission is an outhouse where waste is composted with sawdust, grass or other material before being plowed into the ground. County officials are consulting with the state to determine if that would be legal.

Brothers Dennis and Jim Meech, who each have a farm adjacent to the Amish families, raised the outhouse issue with the commission. They wonder whether the field disposal of waste could compromise health or underground water supplies.

"This may not be a big deal now but 50 years from now our kids or grandkids may have to deal with it," Dennis Meech told commissioners.

Marita Meech, wife of Jim Meech, said an interview that the couple has tried to be good neighbors to the Amish. They buy the Amish produce, sell them hay and once gave them an injured 700-pound steer to butcher and eat.

"We get along with them," she said. But she said that at some point the Amish should be made to comply with sanitation codes like all other residents.

"As time goes by more structures are going to be built," she said. "How long is the county going to continue letting that happen?"

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh)