SALEM — A planned Ways and Means Committee vote Friday on mandatory water fluoridation was delayed until the coming week to address a problem raised by House Speaker Jeff Merkeley, D-Portland.
Meanwhile, the controversial issue threatens to sink under its own weight because of amendments that keep being added to House Bill 3099 in an effort to rally legislative support.
As originally introduced, the bill mandated treatment of all water supplies that serve more than 10,000 customers. The timetable would hinge on the acquisition of funds to pay for equipment, including possible state aid. The bill prohibits raising the money through local fees, taxes or a rate increase for users.
With the bill stalled, an amendment was added on May 23 to let voters decide whether they want to opt out of state-mandated fluoridation. That raised another concern with Merkeley and others: What if a community’s water is provided by another system, such as Portland’s Bull Run or Medford’s Butte Springs?
Another amendment was dropped Saturday to address that issue: It would have required a supplier serving multiple customers to continue providing unfluoridated water to municipalities that opt out.
Larry Rains, Medford’s water commissioner, said if the Medford Water Commission is required to fluoridate, it could not deliver unfluoridated water to any of the communities it serves.
“We can’t make any distinction. We would have to treat our water at the source,” Rains said. Medford serves the communities of White City, Talent, Jacksonville, Eagle Point and Central Point as well as four older water districts.
Another controversial provision centers on the election process.The bill allows only two opt-out votes, either in the 2008 May primary or November general election.
Critics, including the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeepers and Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, contend this leaves no option to stop fluoridating if it is ever determined the chemical poses real health threats.
The League of Oregon Cities is also opposing the bill because of the local option pre-emption by the state. Last year, the Ashland City Council passed an ordinance against water fluoridation, which the state law would trump if it passes.
The hot-button issue, which has its passionate advocates and equally committed opponents, had been written off as a lost cause following a hearing early in the session. But it roared back to life last week, despite the scheduled Ways and Means vote delay.
But even with the new amendments, or perhaps because of them, it appears unlikely the bill can clear the 2007 session as legislators race to adjourn on or before June 29. Past efforts to mandate fluoridation have failed, including one in 2003 that passed the House but died in the Senate.
Jackson County legislators have lined up against the bill, most notably Ashland’s Sen. Alan Bates and Rep. Peter Buckley. Bates argues that fluoridation can pose health risks and is not an effective dental health measure.
Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.