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Last Updated

11 Apr 2003

Source: New York Times, April 11, 2003

Anthrax Cleanup to Close Mail Center a Year More


HAMILTON, N.J., April 10 It has been 18 months since the big mail-sorting plant here was contaminated by anthrax spores and closed. But it will be at least a year more before it is safe for its scattered workers to go back inside.

The Postal Service announced today that the final step in cleaning out the anthrax that once had Trenton-area residents wearing rubber gloves to open their letters and bills would not begin until this fall. And it said that final cleanup a fumigation with chlorine gas and installation of new equipment would probably not be finished until next April.

At separate briefings for local officials, the news media and local residents, the Postal Service's top engineer said that machinery to produce the chlorine gas had not yet been disassembled from the sorting plant outside Washington, where anthrax decontamination was recently completed.

The centers there and in this Trenton suburb were contaminated in the letter-borne anthrax attacks in September 2001 in which five people, including two postal workers, died. The crimes are unsolved.

The news of further delay disappointed the Hamilton center's 500 workers, who now have to commute farther, to a temporary center north of here, just off the New Jersey Turnpike in Monroe Township. But Thomas G. Day, vice president for engineering for the Postal Service, said he would rather be safe than sorry.

"I wish we could have had this done by now, but we have not," Mr. Day said at a news conference in Princeton. "Our unofficial motto has been, `Do it right, not fast,' and it's still going to take time to get this done the right way."

Bill Lewis, president of the Trenton-area local of the postal workers' union, expressed disappointment but not surprise. "It's really depressing that we're not going back for so long," he said. "You've got to understand that these people have been out of that facility for 18 months now."

The temporary center, a former warehouse, not only is farther from the workers' homes, Mr. Lewis said, but also lacks proper heating and ventilation and has too few toilets.

The change in sorting centers has not affected mail service in central New Jersey, but the inconvenienced postal workers have long been a strong voice in local politics, and elected officials in both parties, including Glen D. Gilmore, the mayor of Hamilton, have taken up their campaign for a swift return to their old work site.

"I'm disappointed that it has taken so long, but I realize at the same time that they are dealing with something here that no one has had to deal with before," Mayor Gilmore, a Democrat, said today.

While the fumigating gas, chlorine dioxide, has long been used in water and sewer treatment plants, its use for killing anthrax spores has not been approved before, Mr. Day said, so special permits had to be obtained for the Washington sites. They are the Hart Senate Office Building, where anthrax-laden letters were mailed to Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont in 2001, and the 14.2-million-cubic-foot Curseen-Morris mail distribution system in suburban Washington. Both have now been cleaned using the gas.

Although Mr. Lewis complained that Trenton was put last in line for a cleanup, Mr. Day said the experimental gassing of anthrax spores was tried first in Washington because the Hart building was relatively small and easier to use for a first try. After that, it made sense to keep the machinery in Washington for the big suburban center.

In each case, the Postal Service and its contractors had to design and build machinery, resembling a small chemical plant, that turned the building into a gas chamber for the living anthrax spores.

The Washington cleanup cost about $105 million, and the Hamilton work is expected to cost an additional $65 million.