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Flouride mandate is overturned

Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

Bonney Lake water will remain fluoride free.

Thursday, the state Supreme Court voted 6-3 to reverse a lower court decision ruling that the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Board could not mandate water utilities to add fluoride to their water.

"I'm thrilled," Councilman James Rackley said. "The ruling saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars and nobody wanted it."

The fluoride battle began two years ago when the Health Board unanimously voted to order any water supplier in Pierce County serving 5,000 people or more to add fluoride to its water system.

The order would have affected nearly 240,000 people in the county.

Within five months of the board's decision, the Bonney Lake City Council voted to sue in an attempt to block the fluoridation mandate.

The suit was filed in November 2002 by the city of Bonney Lake and joined by Lakewood Water District and five private, non-profit water utilities - Parkland Light and Water Co., Fruitland Mutual Water Co., Mountain View-Edgewater Co., Summit Water and Supply Co. and Spanaway Water Co.

Pierce County Superior Court held in February of 2003 the Health Board had the authority to order fluoridation of the water systems.

The Supreme Court's ruling, written by Justice Charles W. Johnson stated, "The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board. We reverse and hold that the resolution conflicts with RCW 57.08.012, which gives water districts the power to control the content of their water systems and, with that power, the authority to fluoridate their water."

The decision overturned the Health Board's mandate, but the court made no ruling on the merits of Bonney Lake's core argument that the ruling is forced medical treatment.

"This means that when a local regulation conflicts with a state statute, we will invalidate the regulation," Johnson wrote in the court's opinion. "Because we conclude that an irreconcilable conflict exits, the board's resolution fails in its entirety and cannot be enforced against any party to the present suit. Thus, we need not decide any of the other issues raised by the parties in this case."

By ruling on a state law there is no appeal to federal court.

"This current resolution is dead. It's a state law issue, so no higher court can consider," said Jeff Ganson, deputy city attorney for Bonney Lake. "The Health Board can ask for reconsideration, but that is very rare."

Dr. Frederico Cruz-Uribe, director of the Tacoma/Pierce County Board of Health, said they would not challenge the court.

"The court is the final arbiter," Cruz-Uribe said. "It was a surprise. We went through Superior Court with out any dissension. I'm very disappointed."

According to Cruz-Uribe, the problem of tooth decay in children is at epidemic levels across the county.

"It is a huge problem," Cruz-Uribe said. "There are 50,000 children throughout Pierce County who can't get to a dentist because of the problems with Medicaid. Very few dentists accept Medicaid because the bureaucratic problems with billing is a nightmare. But we have all these kids who need care and the problem will not go away."

With the fluoride resolution dead, Cruz-Uribe said the Health Board will try to expand its tooth sealant and fluoride varnish program.

With the fluoride resolution settled, Bonney Lake officials expressed relief that the process was over and settled in their favor.

"I think it's great to give the control back where it should be," Councilman Neil Johnson said. "This puts the control back in the people's hands. I prefer not to do fluoride at all. If we have a groundswell of people who say they want it, we'll look at it. But I don't see that. People need to get fluoride through their dentist and have good dental habits."

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com

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