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Last Updated

17 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 17, 2002.

Crews Begin Anthrax Cleanup Of State Dept. Mail Site in N.Va.

By Michael Laris, Washington Post Staff Writer

Technicians have begun gutting the State Department's diplomatic mail facility in Northern Virginia, launching an arduous decontamination effort more than a year after a terrorist mailing sickened a sorting contractor (case 20) with the inhaled form of anthrax.

Workers will use everything from industrial-grade vacuums and circular saws to soapy water and in their efforts to clean out and reinhabit the 75,000-square-foot facility in Sterling, federal officials said yesterday as they outlined decontamination plans to Loudoun County supervisors. Until October 2001, diplomatic pouches, packages and letters to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world had passed through the building.

Federal authorities said they hope to scour, remodel and their complex by 2004. They sought yesterday to allay any concerns that their complicated cleanup 500 feet from a suburban subdivision could pose a threat to residents.

"We are not coming alone," said Cedric Dumont, the State Department's medical director. "We're coming with the expertise of the United States."

Federal officials, including State Department and Environmental Protection Agency workers, received a warm welcome. But they also heard some sharp questions on a topic that still evokes strong emotions more than a year after the mysterious and deadly mailings that left five people dead nationwide.

"Why has it taken so long to actually do something?" asked Loudoun Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer), a retired Air Force colonel. "We're looking at 2004. Why don't you do it rather than talk about it?"

Last December, the Hart Senate Office Building was successfully decontaminated and later reoccupied. Over the weekend, the Brentwood Road NE postal facility in Washington, where anthrax killed two postal workers (cases 15 and 16), was pumped full of chlorine dioxide as part of fumigation efforts. If it is successful, workers could return to the facility in April.

But federal officials said work decontaminating the Sterling facility and its contents was delayed while they cleaned the State Department's diplomatic pouches and worked to get its mail facilities back into shape after the anthrax contamination, which officials believe occurred when a letter addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) was misdirected to Sterling.

The cleanup has been a global effort. Technicians used the quarantined Sterling site as a staging area to clean more than 46,000 diplomatic pouches from U.S. missions worldwide, officials said, adding that the effort caused further delays in cleaning the facility itself. The pouches were gas-cleaned in chambers on the site.

Working with other federal agencies and contractors, the department also oversaw the cleaning of more than 155 of its mailrooms in and outside the United States.

Office equipment, mail and personal items were sent from those mailrooms to Sterling, where they were stored in trailers with packages and mail from the Sterling site that was suspected of being contaminated with anthrax spores.

More than 70,000 pounds of the mail were irradiated, 19,000 parcels were individually vacuumed and tested, and about 22 pallets of personal and office items were packaged and shipped elsewhere to be sterilized with ethylene oxide before they were either returned, sent on to their original destinations or put back to use.

Federal officials said it also took time to put together a far-reaching plan to safely handle a clutter of various materials in the Sterling facility, including documents, furniture, insulation and drywall from the enormous, whirling sorter machines.

After an initial cleaning on the site, some materials are being shipped to Macon, Ga., for incineration. Others are being sent to Jacksonville, Fla., to be sterilized by steam and either destroyed or sent back, said Tom Sgroi, the State Department's project manager for the Sterling cleanup.

Dorothy Canter, the EPA's chief scientist for bioterrorism issues, said there is no way to know for certain whether efforts to scour and fumigate the contaminated Sterling facility will kill every anthrax spore. Workers would not be allowed to reenter the facility if extensive testing after cleaning finds any spores, she said. Canter added that the risk will be tiny after the regimen is completed.

David Hose (case 20), the contract worker infected at the Sterling facility, was recently hospitalized for pneumonia, which relatives said they believed was linked to the anthrax that nearly killed him last year. Federal researchers are studying the long-term effects of the disease.