Some of the issues have changed, said Bruce Anderson, since the last time he was state Department of Health director, but the job feels about the same: working to move public health improvements forward.
Anderson, 66, has a long history with DOH, heading the department from 1999 to 2002 and as deputy director of environmental health from 1987 to 1998.
It was when he was a DOH epidemiologist that Anderson was tapped to conduct risk assessments for contaminants in drinking water and other environmental hazards, and that may be what makes him sensitive to what’s going on at Red Hill now.
That issue was spotlighted when leaks were reported from the Navy’s World War II vintage fuel tanks below ground at Red Hill, located 100 feet above Oahu’s primary water aquifer.
DOH has been at the center of discussions about how to handle repairs to the tanks, but Anderson believes beyond the near-term repairs, the primary job should be to find a new site for the tanks, above ground.
“We’re looking at a long process,” Anderson acknowledged, “but having said that, now is the time they should start doing that. Those tanks aren’t going to last forever.”
The Hawaii-born Anderson graduated from Punahou School and Colorado College, earning a master’s degree in public health from Yale University and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Hawaii. On weekends, he goes home to the Waimea farm on Hawaii island where he lives with his wife.
Anderson cited some critical strides in health, citing especially the groundbreaking of the new Hawaii State Hospital facility, as well as efforts to create an electronic database of the state’s population and their health conditions. But the advent of the internet presents new challenges, he said.
“We’re seeing now more and more people concerned about the possible adverse effects of vaccinations … which are largely unfounded,” he said. “But you know, there’s misinformation being spread through social media that is hard to counteract.”
Question: How do you view the issue of the Red Hill fuel tanks and the various proposals for managing the risk to the water supply?
Answer: The department goals regarding the Red Hill tanks have shifted since I became DOH director. The Agreement on Consent (AOC) between the Environmental Protection Agency, DOH and Navy assure that the tanks are being adequately inspected and repaired, and an effective leak detection system is in place for as long as they continue to be used.
However, I believe that the long-term risks associated with storing hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel over one of our most important aquifers is unacceptable.
An amazing engineering accomplishment serving the military for many decades, the tanks are now over 70 years old and, obviously, they won’t last forever. Further, we know a lot more about the vulnerability of our groundwater resources now than anyone did then.
Our long-term goal should be to decommission or repurpose these old tanks and relocate the essential fuel they store to another location. While it will take time for the Navy to plan for new tanks, obtain the necessary funding and to construct those tanks, I believe refocusing our long-term goal on finding another location for the fuels that are necessary and being used today is a much wiser way to spend literally billions of dollars than to try to upgrade the existing tanks.
In the meantime, the department’s short-term goal will be to oversee the Navy’s efforts to maintain, inspect and repair the tanks.
We have had discussions with the Navy about relocating these tanks over the last few months, and I believe they are listening.
Q:What will be Hawaii State Hospital’s capacity to help address the mental health needs increasingly evident in the homelessness crisis?
A: Since I was appointed, the Hawaii State Hospital has been over-capacity and yet must continue to accept court-committed patients. A new, secure facility is being built, which broke ground last November, and is expected to be completed and begin operations in May 2021.
In the interim, we need to find additional treatment services for these patients. A handful of particularly difficult patients have been sent to secured mainland facilities with capacity, but that is not a solution to the problem.
Part of the problem is a lack of alternatives for patients who do not need the secure confines found at the State Hospital. We are actively working on partnerships with potential service providers to expand the continuum of care. …
Q: Any thoughts on medical cannabis, and the prospects for legalizing recreational marijuana?
A: The medical cannabis dispensary licensing and patient registration programs were established before I became director, thanks to the concerted efforts of staff and strong legislative support. These programs are now working together in one office. …
From what I have seen so far, the department has created a rigorous regulatory process and an exemplary patient registration system that surpasses what most states have in place. The most recent improvements are the out-of-state registration process and the electronic patient registry card. …
Legalization allowing cannabis for non-medical purposes was considered this year but seems to be shelved, at least for the time being. … This year, it seems the Legislature wants the department to focus on the use of cannabis for medical purposes only.
Q:What response do you have for opponents to vaccination requirements?
A: Over many decades, research has shown that immunization through vaccination is the safest way to protect against infectious diseases. Vaccines produce an immune response similar to that produced by the natural infection, but without the serious risks of death or disability connected with natural infection. …
School vaccination requirements protect our children, reduce lost school days for students due to illness and lost work days for parents to provide care, and prevent outbreaks in the community.
Rule changes have recently been proposed to update vaccination requirements for daycare and school entry based on nationally recommended schedules that will maintain high vaccination coverage, and in turn, lower rates of vaccine-preventable diseases. I strongly support updating vaccination requirements for children in our schools.
Q: How would you assess Hawaii’s opioid addiction problem?
A: Fortunately, the opioid crisis has not been as widespread in Hawaii as it has been in most states. … The Drop Box project, where people can dispose of unused medications, has been very successful. We are also working with other state and local agencies to expand this to all pharmacies. But opioids are just one part of the broader substance abuse problem.
The state has just been awarded another $2 million in federal funds to deal with the nationwide opioid epidemic. With the $8 million in federal funds previously provided, Hawaii has begun to reimagine and reorganize our entire substance abuse care system to address all substance abuse in our community more effectively. …
Q: With the heavy rains of climate change, is there any strategy for mitigating the water-quality problems?
A: Addressing severe weather events and other issues associated with climate change is a top priority for the department. … As a result of these storms and heavy rainfall, streams, wetlands and coastal areas will be impacted by runoff containing sediment, pesticides, excessive nutrients, harmful bacteria and other health hazards. …
It’s common to see brown plumes of sediment impacting ocean water quality around stream mouths with heavy rain. The department is seeking funds from the Legislature this year to start up a new polluted runoff control program.
This program will support better land management through practical approaches by requiring soil conservation plans; controlling wild pigs, goats and sheep that damage vegetation in our watersheds; and retaining water and letting it seep into the ground before flowing through natural or man-made streambeds.