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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: Boca Raton News (Florida), September 21, 2002.

Sen. Nelsonís anthrax cleanup bill revised

Proposed legislation split, seeks EPA assistance for AMI building

By Aaron Shea

Sensing that some of his colleagues in the Senate would not favor his proposed American Media Inc. cleanup bill, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has changed tactics in his effort to persuade the federal government to clean -- or at least assist in the cleanup of -- the anthrax-riddled building off Yamato Road.

In what Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin is calling a "broader approach," the Democrat from Florida has split his proposed cleanup bill into two pieces of legislation -- with one measure focusing on getting cleanup assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency and the other authorizing the federal government to pick up the check for the multi-million-dollar mess.

If ultimately passed by the Senate, the measures would also have to be approved by the House of Representatives.

Next week, the EPA-focused bill is expected to go before the Senateís Environment and Public Works Committee for discussion, McLaughlin said. The draft of the bill would have the EPA provide assistance in the cleanup of the 67,000-square-foot building in the Arvida Park of Commerce -- a process that would include reviewing the qualifications of potential contractors, reviewing their proposed plans and identifying facilities in the state where the anthrax waste can be disposed.

In addition, the bill would authorize the EPA to conduct a multi-agency seminar locally to discuss community health and other concerns. The EPA oversaw the anthrax cleanup of the Senate buildings in Washington last year.

Similar to legislation proposed by Nelson last month, the second bill seeks a federal takeover of the privately owned building at 5401 N.W. Broken Sound Blvd. Under that scenario, AMI would give the federal government the building -- or charge $1 for it -- after which the government would clean the facility, dispose of the anthrax and sell the building.

Some estimates have put the cost of the cleanup at more than $6 million.

Another option outlined by Nelson in the bill would allow the federal government to take over the building but keep it sealed to conduct further research on anthrax contamination.

"We were testing the waters with various senators, and they didnít like it," McLaughlin said of the bill originally intended as an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Bill. McLaughlin said the legislation will likely be attached to an appropriations bill and would be presented to the Senate before the end of the year.

"We didnít think there would be enough support. At the very least we can get the EPA assigned to this case," he said.

Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams views the "watered-down" EPA bill as the bare minimum.

"It doesnít get us any further along," Abrams said. "It doesnít meet the objective. Instead of being beneficial, it is counterproductive. This allows Congress to wash their hands on the problem and say that they did something."

Little has been done at the building -- the headquarters of the nationís largest supermarket-tabloid publisher -- since last October, when it was placed under federal quarantine following the death of Sun photo editor Robert Stevens (case 5), 63. He was the first person to die during last fallís anthrax attacks, which killed five people nationally. Another AMI employee, mailroom worker Ernesto Blanco (case 7), was hospitalized for several weeks, but recovered.

Following the completion of testing at the facility last November, federal investigators sealed the building, returned control of it to AMI and laid the responsibility for cleaning up the structure solely on the company. The EPA said it is not mandated by Congress to assist a private company in cleaning up a contaminated building.

Earlier this month, the quarantine on the building was lifted as federal investigators conducted a 12-day investigation there. The building is fenced in and under 24-hour surveillance.

During the FBIís most recent search of the building, which wrapped up Sept. 10, investigators took thousands of samples and removed hundreds of anthrax-tainted letters and other items to pinpoint what introduced the killer bacteria into the three-story facility.

AMI, which publishes six supermarket tabloids, including The National Enquirer, Globe and Weekly World News, has since spent $10 million to relocate to a 53,000-square-foot office in the T-Rex Technology Center directly across Yamato Road from the building.