In Your Corner: Amish Rights vs Public Safety

By Ryan Elijah

August 26, 2011 Updated Sep 2, 2011 at 8:42 AM EDT

Max and Jane Hetrick built a retirement home twelve years ago in Grabill with a back yard that most would envy. However, not long after they realized they had a problem with their neighbors sewage.

"it was running down onto our property"

The Hetricks neighbors are Amish and they don't have a sewer system, what they do have are pipes that run from their property to a creek that runs through the Hetrick's property and eventually into the St. Joe River.

The Allen County Department of Health has been working on the situation for over a decade, but enforcement is not easy. The Amish neighbors recently put up a no trespassing sign which forced the health department to get a court order to access the property for a complete investigation. A large piece of plywood was also put up by neighbors, perhaps to hide the pipes from view. When testing was done, high levels of E. coli were found. The Hetricks had their own test done and it also came back with extremely high levels of bacteria and E. coli, almost certainly from human waste.

"very alarming to see those figures, those numbers really set us off. It's also important to note that all of that water goes down to the St. Joe River which provides Fort Wayne drinking water", said Max Hetrick.

"any E. coli is problematic, if there's E. coli in that water, that is a problem", said Mindy Waldron, Allen County Health Department Administrative Director.

The county did a 3-year study that found there are just over 16-thousand parcels that are not connected to a municipal sewer, most of those have a septic system on file, but over 4450 are listed as "unknown status".
There are also 2000 systems that are over 20 years old and considered at risk of failure.

There was a court hearing this week, that is unrelated to the Hetrick's case, but it does deal with whether or not the Amish are exempt from health code requirements regarding septic systems.
That ruling is expected in the next 8 days and will have a big impact on the county's enforcement abilities. We found other court rulings that seem to support the county's position.

In Ohio vs Bontrager, an Amish man lost his religious challenge after refusing to install a septic tank. The judge found sewage treatment trumped individual rights.
Allen County officials, stress this isn't an Amish issue, but a health issue.

"This a public health risk, this is something that state law covers, clearly. There are no exemptions, because waste is waste and we need to protect the community from that", said Waldron.

The Hetricks are hoping lawmakers give health departments more power to deal with these issues. We spoke with State Senator Dennis Kruse, he plans to meet again next week with a group of Amish families. While he doesn't condone pollution, he also isn't a fan of Government being overly intrusive into the lives of individuals.

Unlike some counties, Allen County doesn't have the authority to place a lien on a property, after their most recent review of the Hetrick's issue, the Allen County Health Department plans to issue the Amish family an "order to correct" . They say they will go to the courts if necessary.

The health department tells INC that there are many other cases in the county similar to this one where the lack of a septic system is causing pollution. The department tries to respond to complaints of failed systems within 24 hours, while the entire administrative process involved with the investigations can take nearly a year. Allen County is also investigating the Amish family after a permit was requested for a "shed". An investigation found the shed is basically a 2-story home, complete with plumbing. Amish may take advantage of what's referred to as the "Log Cabin" rule when it comes to building permits in Allen County. That rule exempts those living in unicorporated Allen County from needing a building permit if they do all the work themselves and do not hire any outside help. The rule applies not only to Amish, but to anyone meeting the specific requirements.

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