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Anthrax cleanup prompts concerns

(Published June 3, 2002)


Staff Writer

City officials are doing a poor job of informing the community about the timing and details involved in the cleanup of the anthrax-contaminated Brentwood Road postal facility, according to many residents and business owners in the neighborhood.

"We donít really know whatís going on Ė the information isnít being given out like it should be," said Mark Loesberg, co-owner of Capitol Auto Auction, located across the street from the Districtís main post office.

Residents of Northeast Washingtonís Brentwood neighborhood said they still have numerous unanswered questions regarding the proposed schedule for decontamination, the health concerns involved and the economic impact the cleanup could have on local businesses. The building was shut down in mid-October after the delivery of several anthrax-tainted letters to federal offices.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Regina James, who represents the area surrounding the facility, said she has been unable to update her constituents due to a lack of information coming from the D.C. City Council, the Department of Health and the mayorís office.

"We know nothing," James said. "I canít give you something I donít have."

Deborah Yackley, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, said the decontamination is expected to take place sometime before mid-August. Contracts to perform the work were signed May 8 with Ashland Inc. and Sabre Oxidation Technologies Inc., the same companies that handled the cleanup operation at the Hart Senate Office Building. While Yackley said it is too early to specify the target dates for decontamination, she said residents would be notified as soon as a decision is made.

"Weíre planning on having some town hall meetings closer to the date of the cleanup to allay the fears of residents," she said.

But James said that type of wait-and-see strategy simply isnít good enough for people who feel they have been kept in the dark for months. She said a town hall meeting held in March failed to placate concerned residents and that a proposed second meeting in April never took place. She said she now wonders whether D.C. officials have an interest in keeping residents out of the loop.

"The government isnít going to tell you the truth Ė they donít want to cause a public panic," she said.

Ruth Wilson, a longtime Brentwood resident who lives just three blocks from the postal facility, said she believes that race and socioeconomic status are both factors in the situation.

"If youíre poor and youíre African-American, they donít care because they donít think youíre knowledgeable," she said.

Wilson, who has been vocal about other local environmental concerns, said she was at the March town hall meeting and asked several questions that were never sufficiently answered. Specifically, she said she wants better assurances that the building would be sealed to prevent leakage of the chlorine dioxide gas used for decontamination. Chlorine dioxide is classified as a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency and has not yet been officially registered for use in anthrax decontamination.

"My question was ĎHad this been done before in a facility that large?í and ĎHow much of that gas would escape into the community?í" she said.

City Councilman Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5, said those are among issues he plans to discuss during an upcoming meeting with officials from the federal Centers For Disease Control, the D.C. Department of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the two companies hired to do the cleanup. He also said that another town hall meeting might be held in June.

"Iím thinking that at the end of June I would like to have a town hall meeting, but Iím not going to have a town hall meeting until we have information to report and individuals in place that can answer the questions of the community," he said.

That reluctance to set up more opportunities for residents to air their complaints and ask questions has angered James and others in the Brentwood neighborhood. Orange said that holding meetings when thereís nothing new to report would be "a waste of time," but James disagreed.

"Itís [the postal facility] just a few blocks from men, women and children," she said. "There should be more care given to the community. Even if you donít have anything, give us something."

Several residents and business owners said they are disappointed by what they perceive to be Orangeís failure to communicate with them about the cleanup. Loesberg said he needs to know if the decontamination would take place during the working week, something that might cripple his business if Brentwood Road is closed during the process.

"If they did it on a Sunday or a Monday, I could manage, but any other days and I would be in trouble," he said.

Loesberg said that Orange has made no attempt to contact him or other businessmen in the area about their financial concerns.

"Iíve heard nothing," he said. "If itís not his job to inform the residents, then whose is it?"

Harry Thomas Jr., who is running against Orange this year for the Ward 5 council seat, said there should have been a weekly newsletter and some type of email system for corresponding with residents about their concerns. Orange dismissed Thomasí suggestions as being "purely politics."

Orange said the D.C. government would fight to ensure that all residential complaints are addressed before letting the decontamination go forward.

"Weíve made it clear that we will not sign off on any cleanup process until all the questions have been answered," he said.

According to Yackley, fumigation of the postal facility would take 36 hours to complete if all goes well. But she said there was no way yet to specify the target date, because the contractors need a significant amount of time to build and set up the equipment used to feed the gas into the building.

The U.S. Postal Service will be in charge of the cleanup inside the building itself and will work in conjunction with the Department of Health to monitor the air quality outside the building, officials said.

Yackley said that because of what was learned during the decontamination of the Hart building, the cleanup for the Brentwood site would be safer and more efficient.

"One of the things we learned is that you need to move as much out of the building as possible before you begin," she said, adding that the automated mail-processing machines would be left inside to help circulate the gas.

She also said that mixing the chorine dioxide in a controlled setting outside of the building will be much safer than transporting it to the site from another location, where the risk of leakage would be much higher. She said that every precaution will be taken to ensure that none of the 20,000 gallons of gas to be used can escape from the building.

"Everything that could possibly be a small crack has been filled," she said.

When the Brentwood facility was shut down last October, all post office boxes were transferred to a trailer outside of the building. Yackley said those would be moved to another site in June, but the location has not yet been determined. She said that the retail operation, which has operated during limited hours out of a truck in the Brentwood facilityís parking lot since the building was shut down, will be moved to the recently abandoned Goodwill Industries building on South Dakota Avenue NE in the near future.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator