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Postal service begins Brentwood cleanup

(Published July 29, 2002)


Staff Writer

The U.S. Postal Service will begin exposing the District’s main post office on Brentwood Road in Northeast Washington to chlorine dioxide gas on July 29 in a preliminary test aimed at eradicating deadly anthrax spores from the mail-sorting facility.

The test will be conducted in a sealed-off portion of the building centered around the mail-sorting machine that processed the spore-containing letters that were delivered to federal offices last October, officials said.

The Brentwood facility has been closed and sealed since mid-October, when four postal workers became ill from exposure to anthrax that was sent through the mail to the Hart Senate Office Building and other federal offices. Two of those postal workers, Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen Jr., died as a result of their exposure.

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on the District of Columbia held a field hearing July 26 at Gallaudet University to hear testimony regarding the decontamination process. The hearing was chaired by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C, who was the only subcommittee member in attendance. Subcommittee Chairman Connie Morella, R-Md., of Montgomery County reportedly was unable to attend the meeting due to pending legislation on Capitol Hill.

Norton heard testimony from representatives of the U.S. Postal Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, the D.C. Department of Health and postal unions, as well as Ward 5 Councilman Vincent B. Orange Sr. The Brentwood facility is located in Orange’s ward.

Norton said she wanted to be assured of a safety standard at Brentwood equal to what was used in the cleanup of the Hart Senate Office Building, which was also exposed to anthrax last October.

Thomas Day, vice president of engineering with the U.S. Postal Service, testified that the same process used to fumigate the Hart building will be used at Brentwood. The Hart Building was reopened in January.

"Neither I, nor any postal manager, will send our employees back into any facility unless we first receive assurances from our experts that it is safe to do so," said Day in written testimony submitted to the subcommittee. "That is our first priority."

Officials said $22 million from a $500 million congressional appropriation will be spent on decontaminating the Brentwood facility.

Norton asked Day if the postal service plans to reimburse the D.C. government for the costs incurred by having the D.C. Department of Health assist with the cleanup efforts. Day said the postal service had not considered reimbursing the District but would be open to discussing the matter. He promised Norton an answer within 30 days.

Orange voiced concerns of his constituents who live near the Brentwood facility, noting that residents have been skeptical of the approach by federal entities toward the cleanup efforts due to inadequate dissemination of information. But he acknowledged that progress has been made in addressing those concerns.

"We certainly have tried to create a sense of trust and cooperation with the federal government, in particular, the United States Postal Service who is in charge of this operation," Orange said.

Orange also noted that although a perimeter of 0.06 miles will be secured around the facility during the fumigation, there are businesses that operate immediately outside that perimeter, such as Home Depot, McDonalds and Black Entertainment Television.

Thomas C. Voltaggio, deputy regional administrator for the mid-Atlantic region of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified that the EPA will monitor the decontamination process and, if necessary, assume authority over the process if public health and safety are threatened.

Officials from all of the federal agencies present at the hearing testified that chlorine dioxide is a safe, effective means of eliminating anthrax spores.

Although the postal service has set no date for reopening the Brentwood facility, Day emphasized the service’s desire to see the process done correctly and effectively. Officials said that fumigation of the whole building could occur as soon as September or October.

Norton emphasized her faith in the ability of federal and D.C. authorities to bring the Brentwood facility back into operation safely.

"I have virtually testified that I have no concerns," said Norton.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator