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Last Updated

18 Jul 2003

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, July 18, 2003

New owners preparing to decontaminate Boca building hit by anthrax in 2001

By Kathy Bushouse and Neil Santaniello, Staff Writers

Moon-suited crews will re-enter the former American Media Inc. headquarters in the coming weeks to collect anthrax samples, destroy documents, and begin formulating a plan to decontaminate the quarantined building.

The building's new owner, Boca Raton-based Crown Companies, has tentative approval from the Palm Beach County Health Department to go inside the building for two to three days and take air samples and surface swabs.

Once inside, teams also will destroy computers and documents hastily left behind when American Media Inc. employees evacuated after tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) died from inhalation anthrax in October 2001.

The samples will help Crown Companies and Marcor Remediation, a Maryland company hired to clean up the building, develop a decontamination plan, said Crown Companies president David Rustine. Marcor was involved in the anthrax cleanup of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Rustine said he hoped to have the building decontaminated in the next two to three months.

"We're all anxious, and hopefully we can get through this as quickly as possible," he said.

When Crown Companies' crews go inside the building on Broken Sound Boulevard, it will be the first time anyone has been inside since the fall. That's when investigators from the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control spent 12 days searching the former home of the National Enquirer, Star and other tabloids for clues about who was responsible for an anthrax-laced letter that contaminated the three-story, 67,000-square-foot building

In buying the building for $40,000 in April, Crown Companies also acquired everything inside -- the tabloids' files, computers, equipment, source lists and a 3 million-photo archive that includes such shots as Elvis Presley in his coffin.

AMI spokesman Gerald McKelvey said the company wasn't interested in getting anything back. He said AMI had duplicates of virtually all of the files still in the old offices.

"There is nothing left there that AMI wants out," McKelvey said. "We sold the building with the understanding the contents will be destroyed."

The abandoned computers, papers and files won't be moved from the building, but will be decontaminated and prepared for disposal. The computers' hard drives will be removed, dipped into a bleach-and-water solution, then put in plastic bags for disposal. Those bags will be sealed with duct tape, put in another bag, then sealed again with duct tape, according to Marcor's plan submitted to the Health Department.

AMI's files, their contents and any loose documents will be taken to two paper shredders set up in offices inside the building. All the papers run through shredders will be dampened with a bleach-and-water solution to kill any lingering anthrax spores.

Marcor officials could not be reached for comment about the cleanup plans, despite attempts by phone.

Whatever cleanup plan emerges will need approval from the county Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Jeff Kempter, a senior adviser in the EPA's anti-microbials division.

Kempter said the FBI would not likely share the information collected during its previous foray into the building last year, since that information is part of the criminal investigation into who mailed the anthrax to AMI.

But, he said, the EPA would look at findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's trips into the building in 2001 and 2002, as well as the cleanup contractor's findings. That information will be used to help assess whatever decontamination plan is submitted by Crown Companies, Kempter said.

"We'll put it all together," Kempter said. "We'll look at everything that's available to us, see what it tells us, see if the plan they're putting together is acceptable."

City spokesman Neil Evangelista said the city Fire-Rescue Department will be on standby to help hose down workers.

He said the city also has given its approval for the bleach solution used to decontaminate the workers to be disposed in the sewer system -- but only after that water is tested, treated with chlorine, tested again and disinfected by the city's wastewater treatment plant. That will render harmless any anthrax spores in the water, according to city officials.

That's the same water-disposal method used last year when investigators went into the building, and there were no problems, Evangelista said.

It's unlikely, though, that much has changed in the building since investigators from the FBI and CDC ventured inside last year. Anthrax spores can't reproduce on their own, so they will remain in the building until the cleanup, experts have said.

Since the building in Boca Raton's Arvida Park of Commerce was quarantined on Oct. 7, 2001, the only people allowed inside have been federal investigators and Boca Raton firefighters who fixed a faulty fire alarm.