The city of Keyser may eliminate fluoridation as a way to reduce operating expenses at its water treatment plant.

The surprise announcement was made at Monday’s meeting of the Keyser Water Board, when newly designated Water Plant Supervisor Bobby Paugh proposed a reduction in chemical purchases at the plant on Water Street. Among the many chemicals used in the water treatment process, the only additive mentioned for reduction was fluoride, with Paugh reporting that the city could save $8,000 a year by eliminating the treatment.

He said another option would be to reduce the amount of fluoride by half, which would save the city about $4,000. “I’d really like to get rid of it altogether,” Paugh said, noting the difficulty of handling the chemical, which is toxic in the concentrated form used at the treatment plant.

The Keyser water plant, which serves about 15,000 people in Keyser, New Creek and McCoole, Md., is funded through user fees, namely the monthly water bills paid by residents and businesses hooked onto the system. With total annual operating expenses of $1.1 million, a savings of $8,000 – or seven-tenths of 1 percent of total costs — would not result in any reduction in water bills.

Contacted Tuesday about the proposal, A.J. Root, director of the Mineral County Health Department, said elimination of fluoride would set back efforts to promote dental health in the region. “When it comes to dental health, fluoride definitely decreases tooth decay,” he said.

Root noted that the health department, working through a regional coalition known as Mountain Health Alliance, has been trying for several years to establish a dental clinic at the health department office on Harley Staggers Drive, most recently meeting with local lawmakers in an effort to obtain $70,000 in construction funds for renovation of an old clinic at the department. The Alliance has already secured more than $70,000 in dental chairs, lights and other equipment to be used in the clinic.

Without such a facility, the Alliance has sponsored occasional one-day dental clinics to serve area residents who do not have dental insurance. A recent clinic at the Allegany County Fairgrounds drew over 800 people, including more than 200 from Mineral County, with many people turned away because of overwhelming demand.

Elimination of fluoride in Keyser, Root said, would make a bad situation worse. “Dental health is sorely needed, not just in Mineral County but in the region,” he said.

The health department director said that the Mineral County Board of Health – notorious for recently imposing a no-smoking law at bars and clubs throughout the county – would not have any role in the city’s fluoride decision. However, he said the board would readily offer an opinion on the matter in an advisory capacity.

Dr. William Ludwick, a Keyser dentist who was recently appointed to the Board of Health, said Tuesday he strongly opposes elimination of fluoride in the city’s water, noting the importance of the additive for children who have not yet developed good tooth-brushing habits. “I think it’s very important for the children of the area,” he said. “It would be a step backward to take fluoride from our water system.”

Dr. Ludwick also questioned the city’s rationale for eliminating an important component of dental health care for relatively meager savings. “I don’t think we should sacrifice the health of our children for the love of a few thousand dollars,” he said.

In addition to cost savings, city officials described the issue as one of personal freedom. Mayor Randy Amtower said fluoridation forces people to consume a chemical that some consider “poison.” By eliminating it from city water, those who wish to use fluoride could obtain it through store-bought rinses, while those who oppose it would not have to ingest the chemical.

“That’s true America, where you have a choice…,” he said. “The way it’s happening now, you don’t have a choice.”

City Administrator Shannon Marsh also voiced opposition to fluoride, saying she does not allow her child to receive the treatment at school.

Root noted, however, that fluoride is especially important for low-income or otherwise disadvantaged children whose parents are either unable to obtain proper dental care or who neglect to seek such care. “It’s been proven that it does decrease the amount of decay.”

Noting the many rural residents of the state served by individual wells, Ludwick noted that West Virginia in recent decades made a concerted and successful effort to provide fluoride through municipal water systems, as a way to provide the treatment to as many people as possible.

Keyser has been treating its water with fluoride since 1981. Veteran councilman and former mayor Ed Miller, who also serves on the Water Board, recalled numerous contentious meetings before the treatment was added at that time. “I don’t want to go through that again,” he said Monday.

Amtower, however, appeared eager for the debate. “I’ve heard both sides of the argument,” he said.

While the fluoridation issue arose as part of ongoing efforts by Amtower to reduce operational expenses across the board, it could also impact the $7 million reconstruction of the water treatment plant now underway. Engineers attending the Water Board meeting to update city officials on the project noted that if the city decides against fluoridation, designs would need to be altered to eliminate “the fluoride room” at the plant. Like the reduction in chemical costs, though, the engineers said the alteration would result in only minimal savings relative to the overall cost of the project.