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Last Updated

18 May 2003

Source: Washington Post, May 18, 2003

The Ghosts of Brentwood

Despite Anthrax Tests, Workers Debate Returning

By Manny Fernandez, Washington Post Staff Writer

The toxic gas turned the dark blue carpet in the upstairs offices a light brown. It blurred family photos people were forced to abandon on their desks, rendering the faces ghostlike. It left a salt residue in the ventilation ducts that crews are still laboring to scrape clean, and it rusted parts in the mail-sorting machines.

But John H. Bridges III is content, because the chlorine dioxide gas pumped into Washington's central mail-processing plant on Brentwood Road NE in December defeated its primary target: deadly anthrax.

One day last week, Bridges opened a black rubber door -- ignoring a white piece of paper with "Exclusion Zone" printed in bold, black letters -- and stepped onto the work floor of a building once so contaminated with anthrax that even the rats inside were treated as hazardous material.

Bridges, the U.S. Postal Service's on-scene incident commander, wore no mask and no gloves. He walked past tiny holes drilled into the masonry walls, left by technicians who had developed a procedure to test for spores inside the walls. Then he casually strolled on the black rubber tiles to the empty space where Machine 17 used to sit. The metal machine -- a high-speed sorter about 25 feet long by 4 feet wide that processed two anthrax-laced letters in October 2001 -- is now a memory. It had been fumigated and tested, and late last month it was taken apart and the pieces put into a metal shredder near the loading docks, turned into a kind of industrial confetti headed for the furnace.

Removing Machine 17, Bridges and other postal officials said, was a symbolic move, an attempt to ease the anxieties of returning workers.

Postal officials have no such anxieties. Beginning in March, crews were allowed inside without donning protective suits and taking antibiotics as a precaution. That was because, Bridges said, in 5,000 air and surface samples taken after December's fumigation, not a single anthrax spore turned up inside the low-slung, red-brick building that spans 17.5 million cubic feet. "We wouldn't be in here today if we didn't feel we did our job," said Bridges, 47, who helped lead the Postal Service's multimillion-dollar decontamination effort.

Last week, as they have since March, about 100 workers, many in hard hats, jeans and steel-toed boots, continued to bring the plant back to life, repairing mail-sorting machines and taking stock of functioning equipment. The crew includes postal mechanics and technicians who were working at the plant when it was evacuated and who volunteered for this new job, along with the contractors, Shaw Group Inc. More extensive renovations, such as painting and replacing carpets, are to begin this week by Clark Construction, another contractor.

Postal officials said that their extensive sampling was confirmed in independent tests by the Armed Forces Radiobiological Research Institute and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration backed the decision to allow unprotected workers inside. Postal officials said things have gone so smoothly at the facility that only five injuries have resulted in lost workdays -- one for an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

But in the nation's largest anthrax decontamination, small steps can have big reactions.

Some former and current Brentwood postal employees say they are concerned about those working unprotected. "I'm praying that if anyone goes in that they'll be okay," said Joan Bell, 58 [not listed as case by CDC], who sorted mail on Machine 17 and retired in August after a 35-year postal career. Bell said her health has deteriorated, ailments she blames on anthrax. "I cannot walk fast, or if I'm on a curb, I have to be careful how I step down," she said.

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), whose district includes the building, said he was disappointed that postal officials did not invite city leaders to be the first to enter without protective suits. "Even the postmaster general should show up and declare it a safe environment," he said. "They need to make a big deal out of it if it's safe."

The American Postal Workers Union, which represents the postal workers now inside, took a neutral approach, advising members that reentering the building without protective gear was strictly voluntary. "I wouldn't make any assumptions on the final clearance of the facility," said Corey Thompson, safety and health specialist for the union.

Thompson said such a clearance needs to come from the Environmental Clearance Committee, an independent group of 15 academic, government and private-sector experts that was formed to evaluate the fumigation's effectiveness. It is chaired by the D.C. Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The committee issued an interim statement in March that the technical requirements for a successful fumigation were met and that all samples were negative for anthrax. But it stopped short of endorsing reoccupancy. The findings "should not be interpreted as a recommendation" that the facility is safe for reuse, the statement read. The committee said it wanted to review more fumigation data and sampling results. There has been ongoing air sampling during the renovation.

Thomas G. Day, the U.S. Postal Service's vice president for engineering, said that if OSHA had advised the Postal Service to keep workers in protective gear, it would have done so. "We're very confident that we cleaned the building effectively, and all the results confirmed it," Day said. Late last week, he said he expected final ECC clearance within days.

Day said he expected the facility to reopen in the fall, the latest in a series of adjusted target dates. In March, postal officials said the building would reopen in the summer, but that was pushed back because they wanted to "make sure that we're doing it right," Day said. In addition to renovations, postal officials plan to upgrade the computer network and install a biological detection system that uses rapid DNA testing.

The Postal Service's unhurried pace has characterized the fumigation effort since Brentwood was shut and quarantined Oct. 21, 2001. Two veteran mail sorters -- Joseph P. Curseen [case 16] and Thomas L. Morris Jr. [case 15] -- died of inhalational anthrax. The facility was evacuated, and hundreds of other workers were put on antibiotics and reassigned to postal facilities across the region.

It is uncertain how many workers will return when the building does reopen, which has been renamed after Curseen and Morris. Some, like Bell, retired after the anthrax mailings. Others say they will return without reservations, and some have not made up their minds. Still others have decided to stay with the Postal Service but work elsewhere.

Those not coming back cite lingering doubts about the success of the fumigation process. The place still evokes grim memories for many, and Bell said she avoids even driving by. A powdery ghost infected the machines they staffed, killed two of their colleagues and cast a cloud of uncertainty over their health and faith in management, which many said lingers to this day.

"I have made a decision not to" return to Brentwood, said postal clerk Dena Briscoe of Clinton. "They haven't built the trust back." Briscoe, president of Brentwood Exposed, a support group of former and current Brentwood workers, said workers' health troubles have largely been ignored. Some workers spoke of ongoing fatigue and respiratory problems, and a number of others have died since October 2001. A spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said none of the deaths was anthrax-related.

Last year, Briscoe was sick with the flu, and her teenage son asked her if she had anthrax. "Postal officials may have closure, but we don't have closure," said Briscoe, who plans to seek a postal job elsewhere. Postal officials have told American Postal Workers Union leaders that they will would place worried employees at other facilities without costing them seniority.

One who wants no part of the Postal Service's future is David Norville of the District. He was 62 when he retired Jan. 31, 2002, after nearly 15 years as a Brentwood postal mechanic and electronic technician. Were it not for the anthrax mailings and what he considered management's failure to shut the plant swiftly, he said, he would still be a postal employee. "I couldn't see any other way to protect myself," Norville said.

Such attrition caused the workforce that once made Brentwood hum drop from 1,694 in fiscal 2001 to 1,405 this year. But postal officials said the drop is not unusual, because the aging workforce has steadily declined since 1995, when it numbered 2,461.

While his colleagues struggled with their decisions, Warren Litchfield, 39, made up his mind months ago. Litchfield volunteered to help maintain and repair Brentwood equipment during the fumigation. He has been inside the building more than 700 times -- sometimes in full protective gear, more recently in jeans. He is satisfied that the place is safe.

"I want to see all my friends back in the building again," said Litchfield, who has worked at Brentwood for 15 years.

Postal officials have already taken down much of the fumigation equipment, sending truckloads to a postal plant in Trenton, N.J., where the two contaminated envelopes originated. The cost of fumigating both Brentwood and the Trenton facility is about $170 million, said Dennis M. Baca, the Postal Service's manager of environmental policy.

As Baca and Bridges toured the plant last week, the air sweet with the orange scent of cleaning products, they passed clusters of refrigerators and TV sets that workers were testing to make sure they still operate. Still remaining on some parts of the building, high up on the walls or on the chutes of a green-painted parcel sorter, are five-digit numbers written in black pen, noting the many sampling points.

Another kind of message had been scrawled in black marker on the plastic sheeting just above the sign-in desk outside. It reads, "Home sweet home."