CLEAN UP ANTHRAX-TAINTED AMI BUILDING



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Last Updated

20 Feb 2003

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, February 14, 2003

Congress agrees to buy, clean up anthrax-tainted AMI building

By Kathy Bushouse, Staff Writer

Federal takeover of the anthrax-contaminated American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton won approval of both houses of Congress late Thursday as part of the $397 billion spending package that President Bush is expected to sign.

The government will pay $1 to purchase the building and then cover the cost of cleaning it, according to provisions added to the spending package on Wednesday.

The building at 5401 NW Broken Sound Blvd. was quarantined Oct. 7, 2001, after the inhalation anthrax death of tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5).

Estimates for the cleanup range from $7 million to $20 million, and no one knows what the government will do with the building after that.

But elected leaders were thrilled with what they saw as the final hurdle to having the building decontaminated.

"I am thrilled that the federal government has begun to remediate the threat posed by the AMI building.

"It should have been addressed a year ago," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, who with U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, lobbied to make sure the AMI measure made it into the final version of the spending package.

The two tried last year to get the House to approve the purchase of the AMI building, but met with resistance from members of Congress who questioned the cleanup costs and whether a bad precedent would be set by using federal money for cleaning up a private building.

Those concerns were raised earlier this week, when U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, wrote a letter to his colleagues, calling the plan a $20 million bailout of the publishers of " 'literature' such as the National Enquirer, the Weekly World News and the Globe" -- all tabloids published by AMI. Cannon said the cleanup should be left to the private sector.

A report from the General Services Administration said the cleanup of the AMI building could cost as much as $20 million; a private environmental firm told AMI last year it would cost about $7 million.

Other recent anthrax clean-ups have cost much more. It cost $100 million to decontaminate the 700,000-square-foot Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., and it cost $23 million to clean up the 3,000-square-foot office suite of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Wexler said the AMI cleanup was getting extra scrutiny because the company publishes tabloid newspapers. He said the federal government should help all victims of terrorist acts, regardless of their line of business.

"I find it very disturbing, quite frankly, that in the context of being a victim of terror, we as a people are engaging in an analysis of who the victim is," Wexler said. "Whoever is the victim should be helped and should be compensated and should be given every opportunity to get back on their feet."

AMI officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Once the spending bill is signed by Bush, the transfer from AMI to the federal government can begin. American Media has 12 months to officially offer to sell the property to the GSA. Then, if the agency determines that the private sector cannot dispose of the hazardous waste and the building is a public-health hazard, the purchase will be proceed.

Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department who quarantined the building 17 months ago, said she still considers the building a public-health hazard, as the spores that remain inside the building are potentially life-threatening.

Anthrax was found in more than 80 spots in the three-story building.

"There are a lot of unknowns in the area of anthrax, but we do know it's a deadly disease," Malecki said. "There's still gross evidence of anthrax in the building."

Malecki wasn't sure whether a private company would be able to dispose of anthrax, but Keating Environmental Management, a company that provided a decontamination estimate to AMI, said the likelihood of a private company being able to dispose of the anthrax waste is slim.

Keating's proposal states there is "no known location that will accept this waste at any cost."

Thursday's House vote pleased local leaders.

Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said the city has contacted AMI to set up a meeting with interested government officials to map out a strategy for cleaning the building.

Once the federal government takes ownership, Wexler said, he thought the building could best be used to further its study of anthrax, as well as to allow the FBI another chance to investigate how anthrax got into the building.

"Let's not forget, we still don't know who perpetrated this crime," he said.