Thousands start to get mandated fluoride
As 250,000 Pierce County water consumers wait for the state Supreme Court to make a key ruling about fluoridated water, 30,000 of them are starting to get the tooth-decay-fighting compound pumped through their pipes.
Seven local water utilities that accepted a Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department order two years ago are now adding fluoride to their systems - or they're preparing to do so.
The Health Department also has mailed information to people receiving fluoride in their drinking water for the first time.
It's unclear if and when the water providers will impose rate hikes on their customers to pay for fluoridation, though at least one water system installing the equipment now says it is looking at an increase.
Another six water system operators challenged the county's fluoridation order in a case now before the state Supreme Court. But fluoridation has gone smoothly so far for most local utilities that obeyed the order.
"There's been no negative response," said Jim Sherrill, general manager of Parkland Light & Water.
Few people have complained in Milton and Sumner, either. The City of Milton, serving users inside and outside the city, began adding fluoride early this month. And Sumner will have the odorless and tasteless compound in the city's drinking water by month's end, said Bill Shoemaker, the public works director.
None of the water systems met the Health Department's Jan. 1 deadline and could have faced fines of $250 a day. But health officials aren't assessing penalties.
"As long as they're making progress toward fluoridation, we'll be flexible," said public health manager Steve Marek. "In a few months, if they haven't done it by then, we'll have to ask for solid reasons why they're not doing it."
The Town of Steilacoom has accepted the order but likely can't comply with it soon. The town receives all its drinking water under contract from the Lakewood Water District, which is one of those that refused to fluoridate without a public vote and is suing the Health Department.
"We're not a party to the lawsuit," said Town Administrator Paul Loveless. "But we're in a holding pattern until it's decided."
Puyallup is designing its system now but won't have fluoride until next January, said Tom Heinecke, development services administrator.
"Our City Council had planned to add fluoride before the Health Department order," he said. "We watched the Superior Court ruling and then went ahead."
The court fight erupted after the Tacoma-Pierce County health board decided in April 2002 that 14 drinking water system operators, each serving more than 5,000 consumers in the county, had to add fluoride to their water to help prevent tooth decay and related oral diseases, especially among children.
The health board order affected water delivery systems that serve a total of about 250,000 people in Pierce County, according to recent Health Department estimates.
About 300,000 people in the county already have fluoride in their drinking water, including residents in Tacoma, University Place and Fircrest, as well as Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. Pierce County's total population is 733,700 people, according to updated state estimates.
Lakewood Water District and five smaller water utilities wanted a public vote to decide whether to add fluoride. They challenged the Health Department but lost in Pierce County Superior Court last year, then appealed directly to the state Supreme Court. The Health Department's fines for not meeting the deadline have been suspended until the state Supreme Court rules.
Water utilities opposing the fluoridation order are arguing that:
•A water district has exclusive jurisdiction over its water, according to state law.
•The health board's order would be a forced medication and is illegal.
•Forcing private water companies to pay the costs associated with fluoridating their water constitutes an unlawful tax.
Marc Marcantonio, general manager of the Mountain View-Edgewood Water Co., said the Health Department's fluoridation cost estimates aren't realistic.
"And we have people who are allergic to fluoride, a real concern," he said.
He and other opponents also argue that maintenance costs will be higher because fluoride is corrosive to pipes and valves, plus the ongoing costs of more staff and equipment.
The Health Department and the Washington Dental Service Foundation are providing grants to help pay more than half of most water utilities' fluoridation expenses. The Health Department projects it will cost $1.5 million to fluoridate all water systems under the order.
Because the Health Department and foundation will reimburse part of the fluoridation costs, some utilities aren't looking at raising water rates or are waiting until they see how much reimbursement they receive before deciding what to do.
However, Bob Blackman, operations manager for Southwood-Sound water systems in Graham, said his utility is looking at a rate increase of undetermined size. Adding fluoride is more expensive there because each of the 28 wells must be equipped and all must be coordinated, he said.
Rate increases might be on the horizon for more customers, too, depending how the Supreme Court rules on the challenging water districts. It would cost Bonney Lake about $750,000 to fluoridate and might require a rate increase, Mayor Bob Young said.
Rob Tucker: 253-597-8374
CHART: Fluoride Districts adding fluoride
Puyallup 34,000 Jan. 2005 $250,000
Sumner 8,500 March 31 $150,000
Milton 8,000 March 8 $69,500
Steilacoom 6,100 No date None yet
Parkland Light & Water * 22,000 Feb. 25 $160,000
Firgrove Mutual Water Co. 17,000 No date None yet
Southwood-Sound cos. 18,000 Summer 2004 $800,000
* Parkland Light & Water Co. initially joined the lawsuit but dropped out after the Superior Court decision and fluoridated.
Districts fighting fluoride
Lakewood Water District 65,000
City of Bonney Lake 22,000
Spanaway Water Co. 17,000
Mountain View-Edgewood Water Co. 9,000
Fruitland Mutual Water Co. 9,000
Summit Water & Supply Co. 15,000
SOURCE: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department
(Published 1:25AM, March 15th, 2004)
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