Outhouse stink spreads to Kansas?

Three weeks ago Amish outhouse troubles made local news in Ohio.  The story seems to be repeating itself in Kansas, but this one is being picked up by national media.

Bourbon County officials have asked Amish near Fort Scott to comply with outhouse regulations.  These include installing a $1,000 holding tank, and paying to have them pumped out every 1-2 years.

Kansas Amish OuthouseThe Fort Scott settlement is a significantly more conservative community than the better-known Kansas Amish outposts at Yoder-Haven, Hutchinson, or Garnett.

I wonder why this outhouse saga got picked up by Reuters and fed to the Chicago Tribune, CNBC, and what looks like a growing list of news outlets, while the other didn’t.

Perhaps this one looks more like it is going to be a clash.  The Hardin County, Ohio group seemed resigned to get in line with outhouse orders.  A Bourbon County commission meeting included the following:

“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.

An official added:

“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.”

Concerned neighbors apparently complained about the Amish practice.

I do wonder how contagious these types of controversies are…does coverage of one lead to more “outbreaks” in other states?  In other words will concerned citizens be eyeing their local Amish outhouses more closely now having read this story (and possibly filing complaints)?

Or is it just that these issues are happening all the time, but get amplified by the media, especially when they come in bunches?

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    1. mary

      Outhouse stink

      I commend the Amish for the way most of them live and at times I even envy them. I respect their beliefs and feel they have a right to live the way they want, as does any one in America. My problem is this. When it comes to sanitary systems you pretty much have to abide by the laws of the county you reside in, and that should include Amish. in my county of Trumbull in Ohio, when I bought my property 6 years ago I had to install a new septic system which cost me 12,000. There was nothing wrong with the one I had but it would not pass the new inspections although it was fine when the home was built in 1971 standards. At the new ownership it was law to bring it up to date, and now this is catching on in all surrounding counties
      So when it comes to health and sanitation I think they need to do what the law says. Like they told me “it’s for your own good and the enviroment” I have to pay a contractor 250.00 a year to check my system 2 times a year, and the health dept charges me 125.00 a year for a permit to use my 12,000 hole. Their crap ain’t no better than mine!

      1. Sara Mandal-Joy

        Mary – I agree, everyone should live by the law. I believe the Amish agree as well. But when they were led to believe they were being grandfathered in, and then 7 years later the administration changes, and the official stance changes along with it. There are many many ways to safely deal with human waste. Our current culteral hubris believes so many many things about what is healthy or safe and what isn’t. Regardless, the law is the law, even when based on inaccurate information. Composting wastes IS healthful. What the local Amish do IS composting, though they don’t call it that. They don’t spread the wastes on their gardens. They take it out to a back lot where noone will see or smell it, spread it out on a bed of grass/hay/leaves, and cover it likewise, and let nature and the sun do their work. They don’t go back and collect the riches in two years, which they could safely do. All the farm livestock do their business on the earth, and it sits there and is naturally composted. It doesn’t sink into the water table. It composts and enriches the soil. The chemicals the county uses to treat sewage (and to kill weeds in the ditches, etc) are nasty nasty things. The Amish don’t have running water. They can’t have a septic system. They can’t even have an enclosed tank without running water, apparently. There are no simple answers here. The officials say that there are some Amish elsewhere who use indoor plumbing, so these folks could to. Well, it isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing. Each district has their own version of the rules they live by. If not allowed to find a solution that fits with their way of living, they will simply relocate. Its getting more difficult to find places that will allow their more natural way of life, but even if it meant leaving the country, they will not bend on this. And I respect that. Thing is, the county is trying to put the blame on the state, but the state says that each county has the right to offer variances to any farm. There needs to be a plan in effect, of how things are being healthfully taken care of. Each farm needs its own variance. But it can be done. You likely have that right in your own county, though you wouldn’t have the religious freedom/practice issue to back you up. They ARE healthfully handling their wastes. Their way simply differs from the mainstream ideas of what should be, and right now in our country we don’t well tolerate differences from the mainstream.

    2. Sara Mandal-Joy

      outhouses in Kansas

      The issue at Fort Scott (Bourbon County) is riling things up all over this area – its in all the papers and on all the news. My local Swiss Amish neighbors (Labette and Neosho Counties) have relatives in the Fort Scott area. They are very concerned both for their friends and relatives, and for themselves – as the contagion seems to grow. Local county official came out with cameras – despite knowing how sensitive about cameras the local Amish are, and took snapshots of the “fixtures”. They _said_ it was for tax appraisal purposes????? I also have a sense the Bourbon County officials will be handling this differently under the public (now national) scrutiny than they would have otherwise done things. If you do a search on Fort Scott Amish outhouses you’ll find the first story done on this in the Fort Scott paper, after the first commissioners meeting on the matter, early in June. If you go down to the comments section, you’ll find some amazing misinformation and prejudice towards the Amish….. This is discouraging….. Wish we could just let them BE… Sara

    3. Erik your a trip!

      Erik what’s up with you and these outhouses,lol. Look just do a mercy flush and call it a day, problem solved! Richard http://www.Amishstories.net

      1. I know Richard, fascinating topic, right? 🙂 Actually I’m most interested in the fact that we’ve gotten 2 of these stories in a row like this. The outhouse could be this year’s SMV triangle…?

        1. Erik I’m not quite sure how your flushing out these toilet topics, but I’m telling you if one of those outhouses has a coffee holder/magazine rack built-in with internet access I’m getting one of those suckers! Richard. http://www.Amishstories.net

      2. Renee

        lol,well how do some feel about those stinky port o potties, they are bad now…But you see them all over the place, Soccer fields,baseball fields,work sites,some parks..

    4. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      When nature calls one grins and bares it

      I’ve been fascinated with outhouses since I was a child. I think the clincher for me was the one historic site that had an unusually shaped shanty built for the use of the man on whose property sat a rather interesting center-piece of a national historic site. I also have fond memories of discrete outhouses in Provincial Parks whilst camping, there is something a little more convenient about two-seaters with straight-down plumbing than having to hike to a central location with all the modern amenities when nature calls.

      Other options are quite simple.

    5. Alice Mary

      Slow news day?

      Since my Dad was in the newspaper business (Sports Editor of a Polish/English newspaper), news was always a big deal at our house. What I learned (beside writing one’s own obituary) was that summer often meant a lot of “slow news days.” I don’t know if it was because a lot of reporters/editors/pressmen had “gone fishing” or if circulation dropped off because people were vacationing with the kids…but I learned you had to jazz things up to get people interested in buying the paper again. This sounds like one of those “slow news” day items, especially since the Amish are now being featured more in the media. That and the fact that in this heat, you don’t have to try very hard to “smell” that kind of news…I know I can! Yuck!

      I can’t help but wonder what the Boy/Girl Scouts have to do in order to follow the “can’t bury human waste” law there, when they’re camping out. I mean, come ON! Be reasonable! And what about dirty disposable diapers that end up “buried” in landfills. I don’t think they thought this through very well when coming up with these laws.

      Alice Mary

    6. Matt from CT

      You know, something about this article tripped something about that requirement for the holding tank to be pumped out (maybe Sara’s post above)…

      Connecticut DEEP (a ridiculous amalgamation of an agency — Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, which does everything from regulate telephone rates to clean picnic tables) over the last 15 years has replaced all (?) it’s outhouses — which used to be pretty extensive — with composting toilets.

      I can find this in the CT regulations:
      (b) Composting Toilets.
      (1) The local director of health may approve the use of a large capacity composting toilet or a heat-assisted
      composting toilet for replacing an existing privy or failing subsurface sewage disposal system, or for any
      single-family residential building where application is made by the owner and occupant, and the lot on
      which the building will be located is tested by the local director of health and found suitable for a
      subsurface sewage disposal system meeting all the requirements of Section 19-13-B103d of these
      (2) All wastes removed from composting toilets shall be disposed of by burial or other methods approved by
      the local director of health

      The times I’ve used them, they were much nicer then using the old outhouses OR port-a-johnnies. When solar powered, I don’t see how it would violate the connections-to-the-world issues.


      I’m pretty sure applying Amish thriftiness, they could get them up and running for much less the $9K the State Parks were spending.

      (Never underestimate how fast costs spiral up when bureaucracy gets involved…few years back DEP itself was frustrated when a bridge they wanted to build for a walking trail to connect a local school to adjoining Audubon land would’ve had to go partially go in a right-of-way the State DOT owned…rough figures, DEP installed an identical bridge a mile and a half upstream for $250,000, which is what the grant was based on. Once DOT became involved, they said their engineering analysis alone — because they wouldn’t accept the stamps of civil engineers working for another state agency — would be another $400,000, and it might be another $200,000 in installation costs above what DEP had figured. The newspaper called the manufacturer who said private parties who bought the bridge usually budgeted $150,000 to cover purchase, site engineering, and installation.)

      1. Sara Mandal-Joy

        Thank you for the URL/article on your state’s composting toilets. I’ll get info on the system and pass the info along to the local Amish. Sara

    7. Eli S

      As an infrequent user of outhouses, I see two issues here. One is the disposal on the fields problem. Good practice would avoid health problems, but it takes only one mis-step to cause a large health issue. Look at the Walkerton Tragedy of 2000 where taking water safety lightly cost at least seven lives.
      The other issue is that in all instances where I have used outdoor privies located on Amish farms, the ability the wash hands right afterward is not there. No running water means you have to find the pump and soap and towel. Usually these are inside the house. Children are unlikely to know that it is a necessary practice since school also has no running water. Is washing of hands important? I think it is.

      1. Matt from CT

        1) The Walkerton incident had rain water contaminated with freshly spread manure pooling around a shallow municipal well with poor ground filtering (and a chlorinator not chlorinating to the level it was supposed to be set at).

        It’s hard to compare the spreading of volume of wastes from cows to that of people. A cow is equivalent to six or more people; and even a small dairy farm is likely to have forty cows.

        Care must be taken, but in a farming environment human wastes are probably the lowest volume you’re dealing with.

        2) Even with the requirement for a tank to be pumped…it doesn’t address hand washing.

        This is the problem we run into with prescreptive codes — they say what must be done, but don’t take into account the actual circumstances of the situation. (The alternate are “performance codes” which a generally less lengthy, but can be subject to to folks trying to pull a fast one by getting the authority having jurisdiction to agree to a set of circumstances that don’t actually exist.)

        The hand washing issue is an interesting point though. When I use a port-a-john in this area they usually have a alcohol hand wipe (and I spritz my hands, open the door, then rub 🙂 ).

        It’s also a classic example of the paradox of prescriptive codes — it’s likely doing away with the outhouses won’t increase public health in this situation, but other actions like dealing with how hands are washed would but aren’t regulated.

      2. Sara Mandal-Joy

        Our local Amish NEVER put the remains out on a field. It goes out to an isolated meadow, on a bed of grass, and is covered (grass/leaves/paper)to prevent smell.

        As to hands, my Amish friends are FAR more fastidious than most “English” folks I know. From oldest to youngest (youngest go along with older siblings and are tended to), outhouse trips are followed by a thorough wash-up.

    8. Tom

      A bear was recently issued a citation by a EPA officer for the improper disposal of waste. The bear decided to contest the ticket and went to court. During the trial the bears attorney stated ” my client assured me that the answer to the question is YES, but what do you expect him to do, after all he is a bear.

    9. Lin

      Full circle outhouse?

      I find it interesting that some things have come full circle since the Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer days. Children used to be educated by the family at home, then in public schools, and now some again home school. Babies were born at home, then at hospitals, now some have home births. People either farmed or lived above a store, then work and residences were separate, and now some areas are encouraging dwellings to be with businesses again. Tin roofs went to shingles, then back to metal roofs. Floors went from wood, to carpet, to wood. What will happen with “toiletry”? It has gone from privies, to septic tanks, to sewers. Will life make a “full circle” with outhouses?

      1. Interesting question and idea, Lin. Somehow I suspect this might be the least likely practice to return to its roots, except among the true die-hards?