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Last Updated

13 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, November 13, 2002.

Brentwood Postal Plant Fumigation Postponed

Leaks Discovered In Chemical Pipes

By Manny Fernandez, Washington Post Staff Writer

Full fumigation of the quarantined postal plant on Brentwood Road tentatively planned for this weekend has been postponed after several cracks were discovered in thousands of feet of plastic piping that was to carry chemicals designed to kill anthrax spores.

The leaks were found last week throughout 7,000 feet of specially made piping inside the building, postal officials said. A total of 25,000 feet of it lies within the Northeast Washington plant, which has been shut since October 2001 after two letters containing anthrax spores passed through on their way to Capitol Hill.

The flexible piping is the primary means of transporting chlorine dioxide gas and other materials into and out of the building during a full fumigation. About 2,000 pounds of the gas will be used to fumigate the 17.5-million-cubic-foot facility.

Postal spokeswoman Kristin Krathwohl said the cause of the cracks has not been determined, but officials think it was a manufacturing flaw or was caused during delivery or on-site handling. The affected 7,000 feet will be replaced. The remaining piping has been examined, and no other cracks were found, she said.

The leaks were discovered during quality-control checks late last Wednesday. It was the first time the piping had been tested, Krathwohl said, because of the testing timetable, and tap water was used to test it. "They weren't being neglectful," she said. "It was simply time to do it."

Postal officials described the cracks as causing a minor delay in a complex process of decontaminating Washington's principal mail-processing plant. The leaks caused postal officials to call off a Nov. 9 test of the cleaning procedures and equipment and they pushed back the preliminary start of full fumigation, which Postmaster General John E. Potter had hoped to begin this weekend. No date has been set for the fumigation, but postal officials said they anticipated a delay of one week if all goes well.

"We are doing constant quality-control assurance testing and reviewing, and we are going to do this safe and right, not fast," Krathwohl said.

Postal officials said the postponed test might be set for Saturday, after the installation and testing of new piping. The three-hour test will check humidity-control procedures in the building and monitor one of two so-called scrubber systems, which turns the gas into wastewater after fumigation.

Relative humidity of 75 percent and a temperature of 75 degrees must be maintained inside for the gas to work effectively.

The start of full fumigation depends on the success of the upcoming test and a final go-ahead from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, the regulator of the chemicals used to kill anthrax spores, must issue a "crisis exemption" in order for chlorine dioxide to be used. An exemption was issued to fumigate the Hart Senate Office Building last year.

EPA spokesman Patrick Boyle said the U.S. Postal Service has cooperated fully with the EPA in collecting data for such an exemption. Boyle said EPA officials remain confident in the cleanup. "You do this testing in order to find your weaknesses," he said.

It remains unclear who would pay for the costs associated with the cracks.