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Last Updated

18 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, July 27, 2002.

Optimism, Uncertainty Over Brentwood Plant

By Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writer

Officials with the U.S. Postal Service and public health agencies told a congressional committee yesterday that they believe the Brentwood postal plant could be safely reopened several months after this summer's planned decontamination, but some postal workers in the audience said they would be wary of returning to the quarantined facility.

All work there was stopped in October, after officials discovered that anthrax-tainted letters bound for Capitol Hill were processed there and left spores in the building. Two postal workers died of inhalation anthrax.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), representing the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, questioned officials and union representatives about the future of the plant at a hearing yesterday at Gallaudet University that was attended by 140 people. Norton urged caution and thoroughness throughout the decontamination process, which begins next week with preliminary fumigation procedures.

"I say do it slow," Norton told Postal Service officials. "Just do it right."

On Monday, the Postal Service plans to pump a small amount of chlorine dioxide gas into a tent inside the building erected over three mail-processing machines, including one that handled the tainted letters. The gassing of the 29,000-cubic-foot tent is intended to test equipment that would be used during a full-scale fumigation of the 17.5 million-cubic-foot building.

Monday's test "really defines how quickly we will move forward," said Thomas G. Day, vice president of engineering for the Postal Service.

District Health Department officials said analysis of Monday's test results probably would take several weeks. If the analysis reveals no problems, full-scale fumigation would quickly follow, they said.

The fumigation of the entire building would dwarf the cleansing of the 100,000-cubic-foot Hart Senate Office Building, completed last fall after the letters were found there. But Theodore Gordon, senior deputy director for the D.C. Health Department, said a low concentration of the toxic gas would ensure that those near the plant would not be harmed by leakage, which he said is not expected.

Gordon said people exposed to chlorine dioxide for eight hours at concentrations of 100 parts-per-billion could experience difficulty breathing, rashes and watery eyes. But, he said, electronic air monitors will automatically halt the process if they detect concentrations up to 25 parts-per-billion outside the building. Even if such leaks occurred, Gordon said, the gas probably would be neutralized within seconds by the sun's ultraviolet rays and would not be detectable by humans. About 2,000 pounds of chlorine dioxide would be created on site by mixing about 20,000 tons of component materials, he said.

"Chlorine dioxide is not a gas that's flammable," he said. "It's not a gas that's going to explode like some other toxicants."

But a panel of union leaders said the Brentwood Road facility employees don't share that optimism.

"Because the employees have not been regularly briefed about the progress and procedures (of the decontamination process), they are less than confident of the results," said Roy Braunstein, legislative director of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents about 1,500 Brentwood employees.

Day said that if the fumigation of the building is successful, Brentwood's 2,500 employees would return after several months of renovations. A system to detect biological agents would eventually be installed, but that system -- currently being developed -- probably wouldn't be ready in time for the reopening, he said.

Christine Armstrong, a mail clerk from the District who worked at Brentwood for 29 years, said she would not return to the plant when it reopens, no matter what precautions are instituted.

"Who would want to go back in there?" said Armstrong, who was transferred to a postal plant in Capitol Heights last fall. "We have been treated unfairly from the get-go, and they have no idea what we're going through."

Day estimated the total cost of the decontamination process at $22 million. Norton asked Day for a guarantee that the Postal Service would reimburse the city for expenses related to the decontamination. She also asked a representative from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an epidemiological study of the health of Brentwood workers and residents of the surrounding community. In both cases, officials said they would discuss her requests.