- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

LEBANON, Pa. (AP) - William Kautz grew up in the Chesapeake Bay’s backyard. He remembers standing in water up to his hips that was so clear he could see his feet.

A few decades later, he couldn’t even see his shins.

When the Baltimore County resident moved to South Lebanon Township in Pennsylvania eight years ago, he found out why.

Agricultural runoff in south-central Pennsylvania has been identified as one of the leading causes of Chesapeake Bay pollution, according to Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

That’s caused a lot of finger-pointing - and some of those fingers have been aimed directly at the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Environmental activists have targeted Amish farming, human waste disposal and animal waste disposal practices as a leading cause of pollution. Meanwhile, farmers who resent the cost of laws requiring more eco-friendly agricultural practices are frustrated by rumors that the Amish don’t follow the same rules.

In fact, environmental concerns are probably the biggest source of tension between the Amish and non-Amish communities in south-central Pennsylvania today, said Steven Nolt, a professor at Elizabethtown College and an expert on Amish populations.

But for the most part, experts said, the Amish obey environmental laws and are compliant with them - or at least as compliant as everyone else.

Amish populations follow most laws, but their religious convictions can sometimes make legal compliance a challenge.

“Just totally wrong”

There are about 3,800 Amish living in Lebanon County, plus an even larger number of Weaverland Mennonites, who wear plain clothes but drive cars, Nolt said.

Kautz, who grew up on a dairy farm, knows questionable farming techniques aren’t unique to the Amish community. However, they’re among the farmers whose practices cause his mouth to drop.

In many cases there is no buffer between Lebanon County farms and the road, with crops being planted up to the telephone polls, he said. He recently saw a man in Schaefferstown operating a manure-sprayer from the road.

“It’s just totally wrong,” he said.

But farming may be changing for the better. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently delivered some modest good news, upgrading the Bay’s health to a highest-ever C-minus grade. That’s due in part to increased use of best management practices like no-till farming, grass buffers and crop rotation among both Amish and non-Amish farmers.

Just like everyone else, different Amish farmers have different views on environmental stewardship, Campbell said.

“We’ll sit down at the kitchen table with them and walk through, not even just these (environmental opportunities), but that at the end of the day, these are practices that are good for the bottom line,” he said.

Amish farmers must comply with laws surrounding stormwater pollution and are required to compile an erosion and sedimentation control plan like everyone else, said Lebanon County Conservation District Manager Lynette Gelsinger. They are subject to the same inspections as other farmers, and Amish farmers frequently attend educational meetings sponsored by the Penn State Extension, said Del Voight, a Lebanon County extension educator.

“I don’t think they’re out of the loop just because they’re Amish,” Voight said.

That’s not to say there aren’t Amish farmers who don’t - or can’t afford - to comply with Chesapeake Bay regulations.

“It’s an expense for farmers whether you’re Amish or not,” said Herman Bontrager, a Lancaster County resident and member of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.

Perhaps the biggest cultural challenge is the Amish reluctance to accept grants or other federal funds that could help them fund environmental improvements to their farms, Campbell said. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation sometimes seeks private sources of funding for the Amish.

Poop problems

While farming practices are the biggest concern for Chesapeake Bay advocates, proper human and animal waste disposal can also be important, Campbell said - and they certainly matter to the cleanliness of the local water supplies.

One source of frustration unique to living among the Amish is the droppings deposited on roads by horses. Besides the environmental concern, animal waste creates quite the stink when it is picked up by your car, non-Amish residents said.

“This is especially nasty in the summer when you go into your garage and your garage smells like it was fertilized,” Kautz said.

The town of Auburn, Ky. recently passed an ordinance requiring the Amish to use horse manure bags, similar to those used for carriage rides in large cities. That met with resistance from the Amish community, which said it was concerned the bags could startle the horses. The fight led to 30 court cases in a single October 2016 Logan County court docket, according to the Bowling Green Daily News. The issue has also created controversy in Indiana and Wisconsin.

Nolt said a few towns have attempted to enforce the cleaning of manure from parking lots, but that’s often been opposed by merchants in the community who want the Amish clientele. Some stores put out barrels and a shovel to encourage the Amish to clean up their horse’s business - although Nolt has rarely seen Amish horse owners actually use them.

Human waste

The public health concerns of Amish outhouses came to a head in 2008 in western Pennsylvania, when members of the conservative Swartzentruber Amish refused to follow state code requirements for the disposal of waste over religious concerns. An Amish man was sentenced to jail time as a result of the dispute.

The Amish in the Lancaster-Lebanon area do not hold the same views as the Swartzentruber Amish on that issue and are more willing to comply with sanitation laws, Bontrager said.

Much of the Amish community lives in areas that are not connected to a sewer, so they have to comply with septic system regulations that are set by the state but administered by local government, said Sewage Enforcement Officer Gordon Sheetz of the Lebanon County Planning Department. When building a new house, they must comply with all sanitation regulations except for those involving electricity, he said.

Ordinances requiring the routine pumping of septic tanks vary by township, the Amish must also comply with those rules, he said. While some old properties still have outhouses, they can be required to find an alternative system if it is discovered that the water is contaminating wells or other people’s properties.

Most Amish households cooperate with sanitation regulations, Sheetz said. Still, he agrees that this is one area where flexibility for accommodating Amish culture can be outweighed by public health needs.

“They don’t want to be harassed, but it’s not fair for them not to comply and contaminate the groundwater and someone else’s drinking water,” he said.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2jm1tSV

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Information from: Lebanon Daily News, http://www.ldnews.com

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