Postal facility set to open in November

Just over two years after being contaminated with anthrax, the Joseph Curseen and Thomas Morris Processing and Distribution Center in Washington is scheduled to reopen at the end of November. Administrative staff will return to the facility first, with mail sorting and other craft employees returning shortly thereafter.

Yet, as the agency prepares staff to re-enter the facility, there is ample concern over the Postal Service's response to the October 2001 anthrax attacks as well as any future biohazard attacks.

In a situation eerily similar to the anthrax incident, the Postal Service on Oct. 23 shut down a mail sorting facility in Greenville, S.C., after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that an envelope handled at the facility contained the deadly toxin ricin. A postal worker discovered the suspicious envelope, which had the words "caution ricin poison" typed on the outside, on Oct. 15. Officials did not decide to shut down the facility until receiving test results from the CDC. The facility has been tested and deemed safe for workers.

The letter was not part of a terrorist attack, but rather a protest over recent trucking regulations issued by the Transportation Department.

It's common for the agency to get dozens of hoax letters and packages every day, Thomas Day, the Postal Service's vice president for engineering, told the House Government Reform Committee Thursday. Since the anthrax attacks, the agency has responded to nearly 20,000 incidents involving suspicious substances. It's prudent to wait for advice from public health officials before acting, he said.

During the anthrax attacks, Postal Service officials waited several days after a contaminated letter was opened in a Senate office building before closing the Curseen and Morris plant, formerly known as the Brentwood postal facility. At the time, agency officials relied on the best available information from the CDC. Current and former postal employees are suing the agency, alleging that such action put their lives at risk. They also charge that the agency withheld critical information related to the contamination.

While praising the agency for efforts to open a dialogue with workers during the months following the anthrax attacks, union officials told the committee that communication has faltered recently. For instance, the American Postal Workers Union didn't find out that the facility was cleared for re-entry until a month after final test results were delivered to the agency.

"If this hearing hadn't been scheduled, I doubt we would have the [results] even now," said Mike Reid, assistant legislative director at APWU.

Reid also said that employees have not received adequate training on how to respond to future incidents.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said the committee will press postal officials to better detail their plans to train employees.

It's not clear how many postal workers will return to the facility. The agency and its major employee unions have agreed to accommodate any worker who wants to be reassigned to a different Washington-area plant.