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Last Updated

20 Nov 2002

Source: New York Times, August 22, 2002.

3 Postal Centers Tested in New Jersey

Official Suspects Anthrax Is From Last Fall


New Jersey's health commissioner said yesterday that he suspected the anthrax spores found recently in a street-corner mailbox in downtown Princeton had been there several months, possibly since last fall.

Three more postal centers in central New Jersey were tested yesterday for the presence of anthrax spores similar to those found this month in a street-corner mailbox in downtown Princeton.

The testing came after the Postal Service flip-flopped for several days on whether to expand an anthrax-sampling campaign it started Sunday at two other postal centers, in Edison and Eatontown, N.J.

Postal union leaders said they were pleased with the decision to conduct wider testing, saying it was logical because mail from boxes in Princeton was routed through the three centers before it went to either the Edison or the Eatontown center for further processing.

Initially, postal officials informed union leaders late last week that they planned to test the three centers, said Steve Bahrle, president of a local branch of Local 308 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. Then, he said, officials decided not to test, only to reverse themselves again on Tuesday.

Mr. Bahrle said the process created confusion among postal workers and rekindled the anxieties of last fall, when three co-workers were sickened by anthrax that contaminated the sprawling postal distribution center in Hamilton Township, about 15 miles from Princeton.

The four anthrax-laden letters sent to Senators Patrick J. Leahy and Tom Daschle, the NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and The New York Post all passed through the Hamilton center in September and October. The center has been closed for decontamination since October.

But an outside loading dock there remains open for transferring mail. Workers worry that they may have been exposed again to anthrax because of the recent discovery in the Princeton mailbox, Mr. Bahrle said.

The dock at the Hamilton center was tested yesterday, along with another distribution center about a mile away and the main Princeton post office, called the Carnegie Center, in West Windsor. "I just hope everything comes back negative because we want to get back to life as it was and not live our postal lives in fear," Mr. Bahrle said. "We feel we need to be accommodated in a more humane fashion by the government and the Postal Service."

Parts of both the Carnegie Center and a smaller post office on Palmer Square in downtown Princeton were closed briefly last fall for the removal of anthrax found there.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the service, said the decision to expand testing was made late Tuesday at postal headquarters in Washington. "These three centers were determined to be a possible route mail from Princeton could have traveled," he said.

For months, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Postal Service have been trying to find the mailbox where the four letters containing anthrax were deposited last fall, federal officials have said.

More than 700 samples collected from scores of mailboxes in recent months have been tested at the New Jersey Health Department's lab. The only positive sample found was taken from the Princeton mailbox.

State and federal officials have said they do not know when and how the anthrax spores got into the box or whether the spores match the strain of anthrax in the letters.