After reporting on the case of Bob Dylan’s malodorous Malibu porta-potty, I thought I had unusual sanitation stories pretty much covered. I was wrong.

The New York Times recently reported on a fascinating story that’s unraveling in rural Cambria County in Pennsylvania. Like the Bob Dylan scandal, this story also involves mismanaged sanitation. But instead of folk-singing celebrities, the culprits in this case are the members of a radically conservative Amish sect.

But wait … aren’t all Amish radically conservative (super-religious, horse-drawn buggies, bonnets, non-existent carbon footprints, et cetera)? The Swartzentruber Amish in Pennsylvania, a community of 20 families, are so conservative that they broke off from other uber-traditional Amish sects for becoming too modern. One particular trapping of modernity that the Swartzentruber Amish have eschewed — and there are many — has landed sect elders in hot water (and in jail): 21st century sanitation.

Essentially, three landowners in the Swartzentruber sect refuse to upgrade outhouses on their land, defying state sanitation codes. One elder (Mr. Swartzentruber himself) has already served 90 days in the Cambria Country prison, and others members could potentially end up in the slammer if they fail to comply.

According to the NYT, the Swartzentruber Amish have been butting heads with authorities, including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, over sewage since 2006 when it was discovered that human waste was being collected in an overflowing metal drum under an outhouse that serviced the sect schoolhouse; this waste was dumped, untreated, into fields.

The sect did agree to install larger barrels and treat the waste with lime, but more violations have been issued due to the (polite) refusal to take further steps to modernize residential outhouses and make additional improvements on the schoolhouse outhouses.

Says sect member Andy Miller: “They’re enforcing stuff that’s against our religion.”

Says Bernard E. Dumm, a local business owner: “The rules should be the same for everybody. Besides, it’s not about religion. They just don’t want to follow the rules.”

Interesting stuff. I ask you this: should the law — in this case, vital state sewage ordinances — be waived for religious rights?

I commend the Amish for their unwavering conviction and for living truly eco-friendly lifestyles (by default, I suppose). However, I draw the line at overflowing waste barrels. No cars, electricity, or, umm, buttons, is one thing, but I think the Swartzentruber Amish of Cambria County should budge just this once.

Via [The New York Times]

Photo: Doc macaSTAT

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