WESTERN GROVE — Members of the Ozark Mountain Regional Public Water Authority (OMRPWA) board limbered up their legs on Thursday, Nov. 19, in preparation for kicking the can down the road.
Meeting at Western Grove City Hall, the board voted to have chairman Andy Anderson and board member Winton McInnis, a non-practicing attorney, meet with the board’s attorney to see what would be needed to bring a lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and also the cost of probability of success of such a move.
The action was taken in response to a state law that mandates fluoridation by any water system that serves more than 5,000 customers.
The OMRPWA supplies water, originating from Bull Shoals Lake, to 18 systems, which in turn services 20,000 people in four counties.
Most officials of the water system have expressed their opposition to the 2011 law mandating fluoridation. The ADH has given the water authority until the end of the year to give its response. Anderson had expected the vote to be taken at the Nov. 19 meeting. However, a special meeting was called for Dec. 17, at which time Anderson and McInnis will report their findings, and a vote is expected then.
The water authority hopes to keep the issue tied up in the courts, or in the words of one audience member, “just keep kicking the can down the road. They can’t fine us while it’s in the court.”
There was much discussion on what strategy the authority should use in defense of its refusal to fluoridate.
It was agreed that debating the pros and cons of fluoride was not the way to go.
“We’re not going to win it because we don’t like fluoride,” McInnis said. “You can’t win it, and you know it.”
Instead, the board felt that the 5,000 customers rule was the way to go.
“We do not sell to individuals,” Bill Braden said. “We sell water wholesale. That’s the argument to make.”
McInnis agreed, saying the OMRPWA was a wholesaler that had only 18 customers, the individual water systems it served. None of those individual water systems had 5,000 customers.
“We sell to tanks,” McInnis said, “then they send it out to individuals.”
Braden suggested another argument. Did all the entities connected with the OMRPWA sign up before Act 197, the fluoridation bill, was signed into law? he asked. Anderson replied that they had.
Braden then got into actor mode in giving his response.
“Hey, man, we’d never have signed this if we knew you were going to force fluoridation on us,” he said dramatically.
To give members an idea of what could happen if the OMRPWA refused to comply with Act 197, Anderson said the Madison County water system was also opposed to fluoridation. Officials there were called to appear before an ADH committee, and Anderson had gone along.
The committee, according to Anderson, served as prosecutor, judge and jury. It ruled that Madison County had 45 days to get a preliminary fluoridation plan in and then 90 days to implement it.
Anderson went on to say that Madison County can appeal the decision to the full health department, but it would be the same set-up.
“I’d say the odds are slim they’re going to go against the committee,” he said.
The case could then be appealed to the Circuit Court, then beyond.
Mindful of legal cost, Anderson asked for monetary support of the individual water systems in the anticipated legal battles. The authority has already incurred more than $87,000 in legal costs this year, according to Anderson.
“We’d rather spend money on lawyers than on fluoride,” he was told.
Braden also advised joining forces with other water systems faced with the same fluoridation issue.
“No one county is going to beat them,” he said.
There was agreement from the assembly.
“As long as they can keep us separated, we’ll get tired of fighting it,” was a response.
A system operator, listening to the discussion, assured the board that if fluoridation was forced on them, he would have customers who would get off the system and back on a well. The system would lose revenue.
Anderson estimated that fluoridation would cost OMRPWA about 3.5 cents per 1,000 gallons. In addition, insurance costs would go up as much as $500 a year and electricity $50 a month. He also said that preliminary plans for fluoridation would cost about $10,000.
The board was given some encouragement in closing.
“You are to be commended for battling this damned crap.”