Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When, if ever, is it Appropriate to Withhold Essential Water Service from Seriously ill Patients?

For years, the Lake Whatcom Treatment Center has provided badly needed mental health services to the seriously mentally ill. The non-profit treatment center cares for 350 patients, half who are from Whatcom County. Approximately 67 patients live at the Agate Bay Residential Facility at any given time. Considering how underserved the mentally ill are in other communities across the nation, we are very lucky to have a facility like the Center in Whatcom County.

30 years ago, a policy designed to move mentally ill patients out of centralized state hospitals resulted in the construction of a handful of local treatment centers. The idea of removing patients and reinstalling them into programs – in patient – out patient – in their home communities -- near families and friends was a good one. But in most communities, it was never effectively implemented. The money that was supposed to be saved by eliminating state hospital beds never followed the patients to the community. The costs of providing a diverse range of programs for a variety of mentally ill patients turned out to be much more expensive than originally anticipated. As a result, more and more mentally ill persons are winding up in jail, untreated, because there is no other place for them to go.

Today, a higher percentage of mentally ill people are jailed than in 1936, an unenlightened era where mental illness was punished, rather than treated. Many communities can’t come close to providing the level of care provided by the LWTC.

The Lake Whatcom Residential Treatment Center has historically had an inadequate supply of water during summer months. Ten years of studies demonstrate the presence of bacteria that can signal fecal contamination is present in well water. In 2003, E. coli was found in the system. Improving public sanitation and providing a clean water supply are the two steps needed to prevent most water-borne diseases and deaths.

In 2005, the Treatment Center approached the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District and requested permission to hook up to the Districts Agate Heights water system. At the time, grant money was available for this kind of project. But in July of 2007, the Water District voted to reject all bids on the Lake Whatcom Residential Treatment Center Water System Improvement Project and directed staff to work with the Treatment Center to apply for additional grant money to reduce the district’s share of the costs and to have value engineering done. The motion passed.

In October of 2007, in an attempt to address LWTC water quality and inadequate fire flow issues, the Whatcom County Council denied an appeal from the Squalicum Valley residents, who fear that the waterline extension is somehow a cover up for extending water service to a proposed high end gated community development on Squalicum Mountain.

On Friday, January 22, 2008, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig remanded the City and Squalicum residents challenge of the Conditional Use Permit because the County did not properly notify the public and concerned parties of the hearing regarding the delivery of water service into "rural" lands. The reopening of the case will allow opponents to introduce arguments that the Water and Sewer District has no right to make any new hookups.

In an E-mail posted two days ago on the Lake Whatcom Discussion thread, Greg Kirsch, Squalicum Valley Community Association, told Rick Dudley, Executive Director of the Treatment Center “That your foundation and the treatment center are willing to be used as pawns in that game is what it is.” (What ever that is supposed to mean).

Apparently, Kirsch and other Squalicum Valley residents believe that the Treatment center is somehow involved in a back room deal between the water district and the proposed Vineyard Development to deliver water to the top of Squalicum mountain. In the next round of public hearings, the Squalicum Valley residents intend to introduce the argument that the Water and Sewer District suppressed details about an agreement with the proponents of the proposed Vineyard gated community. In other words, the City and Squalicum residents are holding the patients at the LWTC hostage until they can force the County and Water District to deny the proposed Vineyard Development project water service. Never mind that the two projects are unrelated.

Executive Director Dudley referred Kirsch to a 2003 agreement between the LWTC and the Whatcom Land Trust in which the LWTC entered into a three way transaction to protect the beautiful 75 acre wooded tract from future development. In the agreement, Whatcom County agreed to give up its 2028 purchase option in return for the LWTC providing a conservation easement to the Land Trust.

On the same Lake Whatcom discussion thread, Jenny Billings, LWTC facilities director, told the Squalicum Valley residents that the Whatcom Land Trust agreement contains a clause that prohibits any and all development except development that would benefit the Treatment Center. According to Billings, the land trust agreement states that water lines can not extend past the new tank and that sewer lines can not be placed on the Treatment Center’s property.

The Squalicum Valley Association asserts that the LWTC doesn’t need an 8 inch water main and that the installation of an 8 inch main is proof positive that the Water District intends to provide service to the Vineyards site from the new LWTC line. But both Washington State and Whatcom county fire marshal regulations require 8 inch mains to provide fire flow to the 22,000 square foot building. Additionally, the Center’s existing fire hydrants are already fed by 8 inch water lines.

The legal challenge raises a thorny question. When, if ever, is it appropriate for a City or grassroots community association to endanger the health and safety of seriously ill mental health patients who reside in a licensed mental health treatment facility by delaying badly needed water service? Is it fair or ethical to hold the LWTC hostage in a war to prevent a proposed development by a different development group?

What purpose does this lawsuit serve except to punish the patients who reside in the facility?

60% of our nation's mentally ill are in jail on any given day. These statistics tell me that in retrospect, we haven't come very far as a society after all.

Thank you to the members of the Whatcom County Council, Commissioners of the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District and the Lake Whatcom Treatment Center for attempting to address ten years of serious water quality and fire flow issues.

Thumbs down to the City of Bellingham and the Squalicum Valley Community Association residents for exposing seriously ill patients to waterborne illness and possible death by fire. It is never socially acceptable to hold seriously ill patients hostage in order to achieve other goals. The center already exists at the site. Closing the Center means that we will have to build a new, expensive treatment center in town or risk throwing patients out in the street.

I hope nothing happens to Center patients while the City and Squalicum residents tie up the courts with bogus claims of backroom deals and carpet-bagger development schemes for the LWTC project.

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