Bill keeping fluoride levels under local water systems' control sees split vote
LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas House Bill 1312 ended up with a 9-9 split vote Tuesday in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, gives local control over fluoride levels in water systems and gives each public water system the right to determine whether it will adjust the quantity of fluoride in the water to maintain the level established by the Arkansas Department of Health or even fluoridate at all.
The bill would essentially repeal Act 197, approved by Gov. Mike Beebe without a public vote in 2011, to require fluoride be added to all public water systems serving 5,000 or more people. The Act also specifies that funds for capital startup costs must come from private sources and cannot come from public funds or water sales. The funding is to be provided by dental insurer Delta Dental, which has pledged to fund up to $6 million in capital startup costs for fluoridation under Act 197
René Fonseca, a water operator with Carroll-Boone Water District, which provides drinking water to its member cities of Eureka Springs, Berryville, Green Forest, Harrison and their subsidiaries, went down to Little Rock to testify in support of the bill.
Every water operator at CBWD has personally come out against mandated fluoridation, while the board of directors has said only that the district will comply with state law. CBWD is awaiting funding, which is currently on hold.
"I spoke on three main areas," said Fonseca, "finances, our location being rural and personal choice."
He said local citizens have felt like "their voices have been neglected and personal choices cast aside" about whether to add fluoride to their drinking water. In fact, the Eureka Springs City Council passed a resolution last year in opposition to having its water fluoridated. Eureka Springs has twice voted down proposals in the past to add fluoride to the water before the state mandated it.
"Most feel personal choices should be decided at the ballot box," Fonseca said.
He said the issues of CBWD serving mostly rural locations and finances go hand-in-hand. Last year representatives of four water districts, CBWD, Ozark Mountain Regional Public Water Authority and two others met and expressed their concerns about mandatory fluoridation. Fonseca recapped the discussion for the House committee, he said.
"I spoke about how rural we are and a lot of the water isn't used for human consumption. It's an extra burden for water districts to carry the cost for rural districts that don't have as much human consumption."
He reported on the struggles of OMRPWA to get their 122-mile water system up and running, which has just been completed and began supplying water in November 2012. Drawing water from Lake Bull Shoals, their 19 members include cities, towns and rural water associations in four Arkansas counties, and all are expected go online by this summer.
Andy Anderson, OMRPWA chairman, sent Fonseca an email on Monday expressing concerns about the mandate.
"Our member cities and water associations are very opposed to adding any chemical to water that is not for purification or water quality," he wrote. "Some are threatening to withdraw from OMRPWA if we are forced to add the fluoride. None of our members serve 5,000 so none would have to add it if they were not part of OMRPWA."
"He's counting on that revenue to make that new system work," Fonseca said.
Fonseca also spoke about how Delta Dental had balked at the $1.2 million bill CBWD's engineering firm had submitted for its fluoridation facilities, bumping it down to $763,000, but the committee asked him to speak only about HB1312, he said.
Fonseca said two people testified against the bill, one the Surgeon General of Arkansas, Joe Thompson, and the other a representative of Delta Dental. Thompson cited a study that showed reduction in cavities in children after a community began fluoridating its water.
Delta Dental Director of Government Operations Melissa Masingill also testified in opposition.
"What I told the committee was that without Act 197 intact, there is no guaranteed mechanism for funding and implementation of fluoridated water," she said by phone Thursday. "By dismantling or repealing Act 197, Delta Dental's commitment to provide all startup costs is essentially dissolved."
Asked whether Delta Dental would still want to fund those water systems who want fluoridation even if the law were not in place, she said the insurer had in the past funded several, for example, El Dorado.
"It's not that Delta Dental wouldn't still be interested in helping communities fluoridate, but without public water fluoridation as a state law it becomes inefficient and the cost becomes exponentially expensive because many water systems are tied in together. We would have to reevaluate the process."
Masingill said an example would be a water system that provides water to subsidiaries. If some of those subsidiaries wanted fluoridation and the main provider did not, or vice versa, it could be cost prohibitive to engineer delivery to a portion of the system and not the whole.
Fonseca said the committee voice vote Tuesday was so clearly split that a roll call was taken. Committee members voting for the bill were all Republicans; those voting against were all Democrats. Those who voted for were Stephanie Malone/Fort Smith, Kelly Linck/Yellville, Justin Harris/West Fork, Kim Hammer/Benton, David Branscum/Marshall, David Meeks/Conway, Andy Mayberry/Hensley, Richard Womack/Arkadelphia, and Chairman John Burris/Harrison.
Those who voted against were James Word/Pine Bluff, Butch Wilkins/Bono, Greg Leding/Fayetteville, Fredrick Love/Little Rock, Jeff Wardlaw/Warren, Betty Overbey/Lamar, Chris Richey/West Helena, Deborah Ferguson/West Memphis and Vice-chairman Reginald Murdock/Marianna.
Two of the 20-member committee, Mark Perry/Jacksonville and Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV/Pine Bluff, both Democrats, were not present.
Fonseca said Westerman announced he will reintroduce the bill, and it will probably take a couple weeks to come up for another vote.
A bill in the state Senate, SB 255, the Arkansas Water Additive Accountability Act, sponsored by Bryan King of Green Forest, is due to be considered by the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee in the near future, Fonseca said. The bill establishes criteria for substances added to public drinking water that are not required to make it potable. It puts the onus on water operators to ensure that any substance, such as fluoride, added to drinking water can be traced to its country of origin and is proven to be free of contaminants.
Fonseca said he supports this bill, as it helps to ensure the safety of consumers and the water operators handling fluoride products by requiring suppliers to provide documentation.