Rules and Regs - October 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Amish community and against Filmore County, Minnesota, which had ordered the Amish to install a septic system for graywater treatment. The Amish group objected on religious grounds, claiming the septic system violated its church rules. 

The ruling overturned the decision of state courts and sent the case back to them, asking they reconsider the case in light of another recent Supreme Court decision. That earlier, unanimous decision said a Catholic foster care agency in Philadelphia may turn away LGBT clients because same-sex marriage violates Catholic religious beliefs. 

Writing for the court in the Amish case, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the county must prove the regulatory solution it wants will do the least harm to the rights of the Amish. He also noted that other groups are exempt from the state’s graywater standard. Minnesota rules say that if graywater is hand-carried, it may be discharged directly onto the land, which means hunters, campers, owners of rustic cabins and others, are not required to install septic systems for graywater, he wrote.

Filmore County has been pursuing the case against the Schwartzentruber Amish community since 2006, and at one point the county asked for an order to declare the Amish homes uninhabitable if they did not install septic systems. 

County officials said septic systems for graywater were necessary because it could contain pathogens and viruses harmful to human health. The Amish said installing a septic system would violate their religious beliefs and their desire to remain separate from the modern world, but they offered to install basins filled with wood chips to clean the water. In his ruling in favor of the county, Judge Joseph Chase wrote the Amish cannot interfere with the rights of others. “All water is connected, and all of us, Amish and English alike, drink from the same aquifers.”

News reports noted 20 other states allow graywater reuse systems instead of septic systems. 

Human wastewater wasn’t a part of the county’s case because the Amish use outhouses, which are allowed under Minnesota law. 


A long-running debate over the source of well contamination in northeastern Wisconsin was settled with a pair of federal studies that blamed the same source: cow manure.

Kewaunee County has about five times as many cows as people, and for years residents have complained about well contamination that they blamed on pathogens moving from manure into groundwater. 

One of the studies, from Tucker Burch, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research agricultural engineer, estimated that pathogens from cow manure cause 230 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness per year, out of a total of 301 such cases in the county. An additional 12 cases are caused by pathogens from septic systems, his study said, according to a story by the nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Watch. 

A separate study by Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the USDA, said nitrate and coliform bacteria in county drinking wells come primarily from agriculture. 

Don Niles, a Kewaunee County dairy farmer and president of the nonprofit Peninsula Pride Farms, said farmers in the area have plans to manage nutrients and are using improved practices such as planting more cover crops to improve soil health. He also said Burch’s predictive study overstated the level of disease.

Both Burch and Borchardt said their findings are in line with actual cases of illness reported to the county health department. Borchardt said the chance of well contamination with nitrate increased as the number of surrounding farms with nutrient-management plans also increased. “This suggests nutrient management plans in Kewaunee County are not mitigating nitrate contamination of groundwater,” he said.

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On a voice vote, the state Assembly sent a bill to the Senate that would preserve the state’s septic system grant program. Property owners with annual incomes of less than $45,000 may apply for the grants, which cover 60% of the cost of repairing or replacing a failing septic system. 

The program has been in effect since the 1970s, and the state’s 2017 biennial budget set an end date of June 30, 2021, reported the nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Examiner. The 2021-2023 budget proposed by Gov. Tony Evers scrapped the end date and would have renewed and extended the program, but that section was dropped by the Republican-controlled Legislature’s finance committee. 

The bill passed by the Assembly resets the end of the program to June 2023. 


Law enforcement officers in north Texas arrested a 52-year-old man whom they say ran a series of scams that took people’s money and then failed to deliver on promised septic services. 

Joe Frank Slater, of Granbury, Texas, turned himself in to Parker County authorities and was charged with several counts of forging government documents and of theft of property, reported NBC TV-5 News in Fort Worth.

Sheriff’s officers allege Slater took more than $100,000 from clients, mostly elderly people, then forged their signatures on permitting documents. In some cases, he convinced other people to notarize and sign documents outside the presence of his victims, officers say. 


Hillsborough County in the Tampa metro area has asked the state for $5 million to help eliminate septic tanks in its urbanized area, but now it is considering expanding onsite use in its rural southern area. 

In mid-June, Pat Kemp, chair of the county commission, suggested removing a rule requiring developers to provide centralized water and sewer service, reported the Tampa Bay Times. Outside the urban part of the county, developers are limited to one home on five acres of land, but they can increase that density by a factor of 10 if they provide connections to the county’s centralized water and sewer service. 

This policy is encouraging sprawl with clusters of homes on small lots, Kemp said, because developers need density to offset the cost of water and wastewater infrastructure. Her response drew mixed reactions from other commissioners and from environment advocates who worried about pollution from additional septic tanks.


A recent lawsuit asks a court to suspend permits for conventional septic systems in two towns on Cape Cod until the towns develop a plan to stop nitrogen pollution. The Conservation Law Foundation named the towns of Mashpee and Barnstable, and the state Department of Environmental Protection, in the suit, news outlets reported. 

For years, the towns and state have known that nitrogen pollution from septic systems is fouling waterways, the foundation argues in its suit. By continuing to approve permits during this time, the towns and state have allowed pollution to continue and thus have violated state law, the suit claims. 

Instead of conventional septic systems, the foundation wants the towns and state to require advanced treatment units when onsite systems are installed or when properties are transferred. 

New York

Warren County, on the southern and western shores of Lake George, is taking applications for onsite system improvement grants. Property owners may receive grants for up to 50% of the cost of repairing or replacing septic systems, up to a maximum of $10,000. 

Projects dating to April 2, when the county was included in a statewide program, may be eligible for grant money, reported the Post-Star of Glens Falls. 

In other action, the county board of supervisors formed a special committee to study the regulation of septic systems. Committee recommendations will be presented to the board for possible adoption.

A Suffolk County law requiring nitrogen-removing onsite systems took effect recently. The law requires advanced treatment for most new homes and commercial properties. 

For several years the county and its municipalities have been debating and passing laws requiring ATUs in order to reduce nitrogen pollution along the county’s Atlantic Ocean shore. Suffolk County occupies the eastern tip of Long Island and includes wealthy communities such as the Hamptons. Estimates say the county has more than 300,000 cesspools installed decades ago to treat home wastewater. 

A recent letter from the Long Island Builders Institute, a trade association, asked county officials to delay the start of the law, reported Newsday. The association said the new rule, combined with higher prices for construction supplies, will raise the cost of a new home by $60,000 to $90,000. A spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone said his administration was working with county legislators to address the concerns.


Charles County, immediately south of the Washington, D.C., metro area, is changing its pumpout reimbursement program to pay a flat $100 per approved application. The change took effect recently, according to the county. The lowered rate will allow the county to meet an increasing demand for the service.


There is still money to help residents of the Salacoa Creek watershed with repairs of their septic systems. The watershed covers parts of Gordon, Bartow, Pickens and Cherokee counties. Money comes from a state grant administered by the nonprofit Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council, reported the Calhoun Times


Residents of the Goldmine Creek watershed may be eligible for money to help pump out septic tanks or repair or replace failing systems. Reimbursements of 50% to 80% are available from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, which is administering a federal grant passed through the state. The total grant is $62,000, and the district will take applications until the money is gone, reported The Central Virginian. 


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