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Last Updated

19 Dec 2002

Source: Reuters, January 22, 2002.

Hart Senate Building Reopens, Anthrax-Free

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Hart Senate Office Building reopened on Tuesday after a technically challenging three-month anthrax cleanup that cost at least $14 million after a potent anthrax-laced letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

"I feel completely safe,'' said Daschle, who entered the building at midday after the cleanup involving fumigation with a powerful gas, high-tech vacuums, foam and liquid cleansers.

"I think we have done everything possible to remediate this building.''

The letter opened in his office Oct. 15 contained highly potent powdered anthrax. It was part of a spate of anthrax-tainted letters sent to government officials and media outlets in Washington, Florida and New York. Five people died and about a dozen others were treated for inhalation anthrax or the less serious skin version.

Coming just after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, U.S. officials had feared a foreign bioterror attack, but investigators now believe it was probably a domestic source. No suspect or motive has been publicly identified.


Authorities said they are confident that the nine-story Hart building, which is part of the U.S. Capitol complex, is safe after the cleanup and the examination of more than 5,000 environmental samples.

"It's good to be back,'' said Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. "It's good to be confident that we can return to normalcy.''

Authorities said the final cost could be well beyond the $14 million the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated, once additional costs from the Defense Department, the Capitol Police and Congress itself are tallied.

"It cost what it cost,'' said Capitol Police spokesman Lt. Dan Nichols. "The bottom line is we have to ensure the public safety.''

The building was still quiet Tuesday, as people drifted back from makeshift offices a day before Congress reconvenes for its 2002 session. Many staffers used luggage carts to bring back files and materials that had accumulated since October.

Carrying boxes back in Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, put the inconvenience in perspective. "If you consider what might have happened, it wasn't so bad,'' he said.

"They gave me a laptop and I've been working at home -- and I liked it,'' said Reed Garfield, a staffer at the Joint Economic Committee. "The only real problem I had was that I had left Library of Congress books in Hart, and the library kept canceling my account because they were overdue.''

Daschle was one of two senators who received anthrax letters. A letter to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was discovered before doing any harm and was sent to a military research lab in hopes that it could help trace the source of the anthrax.

All mail to Congress is now irradiated and screened for bioterror threats or explosives, Nichols said.

Although the contamination was concentrated in Daschle's suite, traces of anthrax were found elsewhere in Hart so the entire building was sealed off.

Less extensive anthrax contamination was found in several other House and Senate office buildings, but those "hot spots'' were easier to decontaminate.

Thousands of people who had been in Hart were given antibiotics for at least a few days, and those who had been in or near Daschle's office were then placed on a 60-day drug regimen. Some were later offered an anthrax vaccine and another 30 days of antibiotics.

No one became ill in Congress but several postal workers got sick and two died before experts realized the anthrax had been so finely milled it had seeped through the envelope.

Daschle's suite, the epicenter of the contamination, was stripped down to bare walls and floors and his staff will work in a temporary Hart office while it is refurbished. As majority leader, Daschle also has offices in the Capitol building.

Supervised by the EPA, government cleanup experts and private contractors used chlorine dioxide gas to fumigate Daschle's office and related heating and ventilation systems. They have also used liquid and foam decontaminants.