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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 8, 2002.

Long After Anthrax Scare, Agency Mail Delays Persist

By Helen Rumbelow, Washington Post Staff Writer

It has been nearly a year since terrorists contaminated the postal system with anthrax spores, but many federal departments are still reporting problems with their mail.

"I was getting invitations for holiday parties as recently as June of this year," said Rob Nichols, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Public Affairs at the Treasury Department. "If someone needs to get a document to us urgently, we will make them aware of the difficulty, and that first-class mail is not the way to do it."

During last fall's anthrax attacks, spores were found in the mailrooms for the Supreme Court and the main building of the Justice Department, and a mailroom worker for the State Department was taken to the hospital with the disease. Faxes and e-mails helped employees work around the disruption, but some places, like the Supreme Court, where no electronic filing is allowed, had serious difficulties.

Since then, the Postal Service is more or less back to normal, but that good news has yet to reach several hundred thousand government workers. At 13 of the major federal departments, all but three report an average delivery time of seven to 10 days after the postmark. The State Department's mail is regularly delayed by about three weeks.

Much of the delay is attributable to irradiation, which the Postal Service does in New Jersey for all mail bearing a Zip code of a federal building in Washington. That adds an extra four days to delivery time.

But once the mail arrives, each department deals with it in different ways, from air sampling at the Commerce Department to "heightened awareness" at the Agriculture Department.

Guidelines from the General Services Administration, issued July 22, tried to address these wide variations in mail screening in federal departments. But, like the mail, it looks like they will take some time to get through.

The agency's most important message was for federal agencies to stop routine testing of offices or mailrooms for anthrax spores, because the risk is low after irradiation and the tests are unreliable.

Gloves or masks "ease the fears of some workers" but are also not necessary for safety, according to the guidelines. Instead the "standard operating procedure" for all federal mail should be X-ray screening and placing mailrooms in enclosed areas, ideally with separate ventilation systems.

Both the Energy and Commerce departments perform the anthrax testing discouraged by the GSA. The Energy Department holds the mail in an on-site mailroom to perform tests, including air sampling, "to ensure it is secure." The department's mail is delayed by five to eight days, a spokesman said.

At Commerce, mail is held for at least 24 hours in the mailroom while "filtration screening" of the air is done to test for hazardous substances. It is then delivered about 48 hours after arriving, leading to a total delivery time of about a week.

Meanwhile, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said they were considering the purchase of a similar containment device and air sampling system, to detect biohazards including anthrax bacteria. Mail currently is X-rayed and processed by workers wearing gloves and protective masks, and it takes about six days to arrive.

The Transportation Department does not conduct air sampling but encloses its mailroom and keeps it under negative pressure. All mail workers wear pressure suits and gloves. The mail takes about 10 days from postmark to reach employees' desks.

The Defense Department is exempted from the GSA guidelines and will "continue to procure military standard biological detection equipment," according to an accompanying memo from John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

A Pentagon spokesman said that toward the end of February, he received Christmas cards dated the beginning of December but that now delivery takes about 10 days. In 2000, officials built a separate mail plant adjacent to the Pentagon, where mail is screened by X-ray, dogs and "other means." Since October, officials have removed the post office boxes at the Pentagon -- about 1,000 of them -- which allowed staff to have a temporary address.

The State Department, which was hit worst by anthrax, estimates the average delivery time is three weeks, possibly because of the major disruption caused by the closing of its mail facility in Sterling. It is still waiting to be decontaminated. Meanwhile, officials have leased a temporary mailroom where letters and packages are X-rayed.

"We may be worse than most because we went through such a bad time. It was taking months to get Christmas packages and bills out in the pouches to the embassies," a spokeswoman said. As at many federal agencies, she said, employees had grown much more reliant on e-mails and faxes.

But the other departments affected by anthrax are not necessarily those with the most elaborate systems in place. At the Justice Department, a spokeswoman estimated the mail arrives about five days later than it did before October.

"It is X-rayed, and the dogs go over it here in the building, but no one is wearing gloves or anything, and it feels like business as usual," she said.

Likewise, the Agriculture Department is operating a policy of "heightened awareness" in its mailroom, leading to delays of about a week.

The Supreme Court has special problems, because legal documents must be received in the original to be considered "filed." Their delivery now takes a few days longer than usual, a spokesman said.

After the week-long evacuation of the building in October because of anthrax, the Supreme Court moved its mailroom to a new off-site location to handle all incoming mail, including hand-delivered documents, although officials would not comment on their use of screening devices.

The Treasury mail goes through several security steps. First it is held off-site, in a facility shared with the White House, for "a new set of screening procedures." Then it goes to the Treasury annex for X-raying. This causes considerable delay, said a spokesman, who regularly gets mail three months old.

At the Labor Department, all mail passes through a metal detector, and any mail destined for executives at high risk of threats gets a second, more detailed, inspection. Mail arrives about seven days after it was sent.

New guidelines at the Interior Department have added to the X-ray screening with measures such as making sure recipients of suspicious packages can vouch for them before they are released from the mailroom. It takes about 10 working days for mail to arrive.

A note of optimism is found in the mailroom of the Education Department, where the supervisor, David Mason, said the atmosphere of fear had gone. Officials X-ray everything that comes in, and the mail is delivered about a week after being mailed.

"It's not like it used to be, when everyone was extremely cautious. . . . We're back to regular life," Mason said.