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Decision looms on Brentwood PO

(Published February 24, 2003)

 

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

A committee of health and science experts, meeting in Washington this week to review test results, is expected to decide whether the District’s anthrax-contaminated main postal facility is ready to be re-opened this spring, as planned.

“To my knowledge, the fumigation went well,” Dr. Vincent R. Nathan, co-chairman of the 15-member Environmental Clearance Committee, told The Common Denominator on Feb. 21.

But Nathan, the D.C. Department of Health’s assistant deputy director for environmental health, said he and other committee members had not yet seen any results of testing to determine if last December’s attempted decontamination of the Brentwood Road NE postal facility killed the deadly anthrax spores.

“The standard says we have zero spores in culture analysis” to clear the building for re-opening, Nathan said. Repeating the fumigation process is among options the committee would consider recommending if that standard has not been met, he said.

Several workers who were transferred to other postal facilities after the Brentwood Road building was closed told The Common Denominator recently that they have “unofficially” been toldthat the December decontamination was unsuccessful. Postal union officials did not return calls for comment.

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service acknowledged that the original timetable for reopening the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Mail Processing and Distribution Center, named to honor the two postal workers who died in October 2001 after inhaling anthrax, has been delayed.

“More samples were taken,” spokesman Robert Anderson said. In December, officials said test results were expected to be available in mid-January, 30 days after the building was fumigated with chlorine dioxide.

No test results have been publicly disclosed by the postal service, which was required to submit them to the clearance committee, Anderson said. The clearance committee’s charter requires its members to sign a “confidentiality memorandum regarding their internal deliberations and review of sensitive documents, which have been declared as confidential business information and potentially FOIA exempt.” FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, allows the public to compel disclosure of most government documents. The U.S. Postal Service is a quasi-government agency.

An anthrax-laden letter delivered to then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., in the Hart Senate Office Building is believed to have been processed through the D.C. mail-sorting facility during the second week of October 2001. The Hart building was then decontaminated  using the same process attempted with the postal facility, although officials say that the Brentwood Road building’s massive size and open floor plan make it more difficult to kill anthrax spores there.

The Environmental Clearance Committee, modeled after a committee that evaluated test results from the Hart building’s fumigation, is co-chaired by Jack Kelly of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The committee is composed primarily of federal government experts from such agencies as the OccupationalSafety and Health Administration, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, the National Center for Infectious Diseases, and the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Jonathan Arden, the District’s chief medical examiner, and Dr. Maurice Knuckles, director of the District’s Public Health Laboratory, also are on the committee. Dr. Donald Vesley of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health is the only committee member who is not part of the D.C. or federal government.

Nathan said postal officials were intentionally omitted from the committee’s membership to eliminate the possibility of business pressures influencing the committee’s decisions.

 

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator