The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board overstepped its authority when it mandated that local water providers add fluoride to drinking water.
The ruling reversed a February 2003 decision by the Pierce County Superior Court that had upheld the board’s broad power to regulate and supervise public health.
The board had tried to flex that power when it adopted its fluoride resolution two years ago. Facing what public health authorities have called an oral disease epidemic, the board mandated that all water systems serving more than 5,000 customers fluoridate their water. About 238,000 people were affected county-wide.
But Justice Charles W. Johnson, writing for a 6-3 Supreme Court majority, said the board’s resolution illegally prohibits “the ability of water districts to regulate the content and supply of their water systems expressly granted to them by statute.”
Water providers in the lawsuit include Lakewood Water District and the City of Bonney Lake along with nonprofit water utilities Fruitland Mutual Water Co., Mountain View-Edgewood Water Co., Spanaway Water Co. and Summit Water & Supply Co.
The decision is a blow to the health department, which has been trying to assert its authority with regulations such as its recent ban of smoking in restaurants, bars and other public places. The smoking ban also is tied up in court.
“Our county faces a serious challenge with increasing dental disease rates among our children,” said Dr. Federico Cruz-Uribe, the health department director. “This ruling is not helpful in trying to deal with this serious public health problem.”
The department and dentists’ groups say fluoridation is one of the most effective ways to prevent tooth decay and oral disease.
In its decision, the high court didn’t mention the benefit – or lack thereof – of having fluoride in drinking water. Its ruling was limited to the question of who has ultimate control of local water supplies.
The health board’s mandate had affected 14 water providers in communities including Lakewood, Puyallup, Sumner, Edgewood, Bonney Lake, Milton, Steilacoom, Parkland and Spanaway.
About 300,000 residents of Tacoma, University Place, Fircrest and the local military bases already get fluoridated water.
“I’m still shaking three hours after reading the decision,” said Spanaway resident Marianne Lincoln, who says she is allergic to fluoride. “It means there will still be some place I can live in Pierce County and drink the water.”
She and others had formed a group and challenged the health board in court, although the group later dropped out of the suit when money ran out.
“This issue was never about dental disease,” Lincoln said. “The court defended the most important item to defend: the right of local control, local voters.”
Former Edgewood Councilwoman Elaine Lewis echoed the sense of relief.
“I’m so proud of our water company, that they went out on a limb and challenged the health board’s authority,” she said. “The sun shines in Edgewood today.”
Plaintiffs raised several points in arguing the case before the high court, from what they considered forced medication to calling the cost of fluoridation an illegal tax.
But in the end, the court acted on only one issue, saying the health board does not have “police power” to enforce the mandate.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Faith Ireland argued that water providers’ power to fluoridate is not an exclusive authority but a permissive one. That means water districts have the right to add fluoride, but that doesn’t preclude a higher authority – in this case, the health board – from requiring it, she said.
The health board originally voted in April 2002 to impose fluoridation. Groups on both sides – including residents, dentists and local officials – launched campaigns offering scientific data and legal arguments in newspapers’ op-ed pages. Cities and water providers took polls to see what their customers wanted.
The order was put on hold when environmental concerns were raised about discharging fluoridated water into local rivers.
After studies showed fluoride wouldn’t hurt salmon, the health board in October 2002 approved a renewed requirement with a Jan. 1, 2004 deadline to comply. About half of the affected water districts had either recently complied or were planning to do so.
Groups such as Washington Dental Service Foundation had hoped a favorable Supreme Court decision would ignite a statewide campaign. Nearly 54 percent of Washington’s drinking water is now fluoridated, said Sean Pickard, spokesman for the foundation.
Nonetheless, the decision won’t cripple the groups’ cause, said Tracy Garland, the foundation’s president and CEO.
“This decision means that the communities can fluoride their water,” she said. “We will continue to work with water providers and elected officials in the communities to make this happen.”
After Thursday’s ruling, officials of some of the affected providers – already in the process of getting their systems ready for fluoride – said they will discuss what to do next.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Bonney Lake Mayor Bob Young. “Let’s move on.”