PRESTON, Minn. — Four members of the Amish community in Fillmore County have asked a judge to amend his April ruling or grant them a new trial in the years-long struggle over residential wastewater disposal regulations.
Oral arguments were heard in Fillmore County District Court on June 17 in the case of Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Ammo Mast and Sam Miller. The four filed suit in April 2017 against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County over concerns that the agency and county were requiring them to install a wastewater system for gray water.
Following oral arguments from Brian Lipford, the attorney representing the four men, Brown and Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson, Judge Joseph Chase took the matter under advisement. A decision is expected soon.
In May, Lipford asked that Chase make amended and additional findings of fact as well order a new trial on claims that the state and the county failed to prove that there were no alternative subsurface sewage systems that were less intrusive on the men’s religious beliefs.
The four men proposed a “mulch basin” system, which they argued was less contrary to their faith and would be sufficient for disposal of gray water.
Lipford’s proposed changes to Chase’s 63-page conclusion of law and memorandum include amending language about the seriousness of the risk that exposure to gray water may pose, and adding language that no evidence was presented that ground water resources in Fillmore County have been contaminated or polluted by the gray water handling system the men have installed.
Lipford also proposed adding language that the alternative mulch basin system was allowed in 20 states and has become a part of the 2018 Uniform Plumbing Code.
Christine Brown, an attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, argued against the request, saying the court’s record was supported by testimony and evidence admitted during the court trial, and that no mistake of law had been made.
In April, Judge Chase ruled that the men were not exempt from county and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requirements that rural residences have subsurface sewage systems for disposing of residential wastewater despite sincerely held religious beliefs that made the requirements burdensome on the exercise of their religious beliefs.
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.” The four men sought relief under the state’s constitution and the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.”
The contention can be traced to March 2006, when the Fillmore County Zoning Office performed a compliance inspection on the homes as part of a countywide “Imminent Public Health Threat Inventory.”
The issue was brought back to the forefront in 2013, when Minnesota passed a law requiring counties to create and enact local ordinances that comply with changes to the MPCA’s sewage treatment system within two years. All homes were to have a holding tank for wastewater, the size of which is determined by the number of bedrooms in the home.
The Fillmore County ordinance provided “alternative local standards” for their Amish community. Amish households are required to have a 1,000 gallon tank regardless of bedroom size.
Amish homeowners refused to make the mandated changes and the case was referred to the MPCA in August 2015.
In November 2017, the MPCA sent an administrative penalty order that ordered the Amish to make the necessary updates or appeal within 30 days. Members of the community again declined to make the changes and did not appeal within 30 days. A $1,000 fine was imposed in February 2016.