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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 28, 2002.

Officials Detail Brentwood Cleanup Plans

Some Neighbors Question Safety of Effort to Kill Anthrax Bacteria in Huge Plant

By Manny Fernandez, Washington Post Staff Writer

Those who live and work near the Brentwood postal plant in Northeast Washington went to a church auditorium yesterday to learn more about the upcoming decontamination of the facility, and federal and city officials stressed the many precautions they are taking to ensure safety.

About 100 people attended the Ward 5 community meeting at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue NE, a few blocks from the quarantined Brentwood site, to question officials about their plans to rid Washington's principal mail-processing plant of deadly anthrax bacteria.

The cleanup is scheduled to begin by the end of the summer, though no date has been set, postal officials said. Thomas G. Day, the U.S. Postal Service's vice president for engineering, said the start date is now a matter of weeks, not months, away. "Safety is more important than time," Day said shortly before the meeting.

Day was among a panel of federal, local and postal officials who emphasized to the audience -- made up predominantly of longtime neighborhood residents, business owners and area activists -- that chlorine dioxide gas, the substance that will be used to fumigate Brentwood, does not pose a danger to the area.

"We're going to take every step that is known to science ... to ensure that this community is safe," Carolyn N. Graham, the city's deputy mayor for children, youth and families, told the audience.

Some of the precautions mentioned by Graham, Day and others included pumping a nontoxic dye into the building before the gas is used to test for leaks, monitoring of the area outside the facility with high-tech instruments and oversight of the entire project by a host of federal and local agencies.

"If we find one spore, we will not open that building," said Theodore Gordon, senior deputy director for public health assurance at the D.C. Department of Health.

The reassurances from officials appeared to have mixed results, as some in attendance expressed a lack of confidence in the D.C. government's ability to ensure their safety while others applauded the efforts of officials to take the necessary precautions.

"We're very concerned about the cleanup," said Ronnie Thomas, 46, who lives about a mile from Brentwood and attended the 2 1/2-hour meeting with his wife, Susan. "If it's so safe, you would think they wouldn't have to take so many precautions to make sure the building is leak-free."

The plant on Brentwood Road NE has been shut since Oct. 21, after two letters containing anthrax spores passed through the distribution center on their way to Capitol Hill. Two Brentwood workers (cases 15 and 16) died of inhalation anthrax, the massive brick building was quarantined and hundreds of employees were urged to take antibiotics.

The decontamination plan calls for contractors hired by the Postal Service to fill the building with chlorine dioxide gas, which was used successfully to cleanse the Hart Senate Office Building of anthrax spores. Day stressed that the same procedures and technology used to clean Hart will be employed at Brentwood, though on a larger scale because the mail facility is much bigger.

Officials said yesterday that the Brentwood plant has been thoroughly sealed, from the windows to the tiniest cracks, to prevent leaks. A safety perimeter -- about 282 yards wide -- will be established by police during the fumigation. Officials said there will be no need to evacuate neighboring homes or businesses.