The Washington State Supreme Court will decide whether the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health can force local water purveyors to put fluoride in their drinking water.
The court last week decided to hear an appeal by six Pierce County water providers that have challenged the health board’s order, which forces water systems serving more than 5,000 customers to fluoridate their water.
An argument before the court will take place sometime this fall. That means customers of six water providers in the lawsuit probably won’t see fluoride in their drinking water by Jan. 1, 2004, the date by which the health board had ordered water providers to comply.
Providers in the lawsuit include the 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 water providers have insisted on a public vote before putting fluoride in their water.
“These decisions need to be local, need to come back to the people,” said Bonney Lake Mayor Bob Young.
The health board maintains that fluoride in drinking water prevents and controls the spread of tooth decay and related disease. Its October 2002 order affects 14 water suppliers serving 238,000 people throughout the county, including those in Lakewood, Puyallup, Sumner, Edgewood, Bonney Lake, Milton, Steilacoom, Parkland and Spanaway.
About 300,000 residents in Tacoma, Fircrest and the local military bases already receive fluoridated drinking water.
Some water suppliers agreed to follow the order. Others didn’t and fought it in court.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the health board in February, supporting its broad power to regulate and supervise public health as defined by state law.
The Lakewood Water District skipped the Court of Appeals and appealed straight to the state Supreme Court, citing urgency.
“It has kind of a statewide meaning,” said Randy Black, general manager of the Lakewood Water District.
The high court will examine four key issues among others, said Paul Lawrence, a Seattle lawyer representing the health board in the case:
•Whether the Lakewood Water District has exclusive jurisdiction over its water according to state law.
•Whether the health board’s order would be a forced medication and is illegal.
•Whether forcing private water companies to pay the cost associated with fluoridating their water constitutes an unlawful tax.
•Whether an environmental study associated with the fluoridation order was done in a timely manner.
While agreeing with the water providers’ request to hear the case, the high court also accepted a brief filed by the Washington State Dental Association, which favors fluoride in drinking water.
“I think it’s a favorable move (by the court) in the sense that (the association) supports our side,” Lawrence said.