Washington postal facility anthrax-free, but psychological specter looms

Postal Service officials and two lawmakers declared Wednesday that a Washington postal facility, which has been closed since the fall of 2001 because of anthrax contamination, is ready to reopen to workers and the public.

However, officials acknowledge they are waging a psychological battle to give employees and the public enough confidence to return to the facility, after two workers died and others were sickened when anthrax-tainted letters were discovered in October 2001.

The first public tour of the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center, formerly known as the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center, occurred only days after an anthrax scare temporarily forced the closure of 11 other postal facilities in the nation's capital. The 17.5 million cubic foot facility was renamed to honor the two workers who died as a result of the anthrax attacks.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., participated in the tour to give workers and the general public confidence the facility is ready for business.

"To the employees, we wouldn't ask you to do anything we wouldn't do," Davis said.

Thomas Day, the Postal Service's vice president for engineering, said no traces of anthrax have been found at the facility since it was fumigated in December 2002. More than 5,000 environmental samples taken in the building since then have come back negative for any sign of anthrax. Day said the total cost of fumigation and reconstruction was "easily $130 million."

Final construction continues at the facility, but occupancy should begin at the end of November, said Jerry Lane, the Postal Service's manager for Washington metropolitan area operations. Lane, who was director of the Brentwood facility when the anthrax attacks occurred, said the building would be reoccupied in phases.

Lane said about 200 administrative employees would return at the end of November. They'll be greeted with a completely remodeled workspace that includes peach-colored carpet, gray-blue walls and new cubicles. Retail operations should begin in early December, and mail processing could begin as early as late December. In all, about 1,500 employees are expected to work in the facility.

Although public officials are confident the building is anthrax-free, the true test of the facility will be when workers return and mail processing resumes.

Unions representing postal workers have secured an agreement from the Postal Service to relocate any workers who do not want to return to the facility, said John Hegarty, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. He said he did not know yet how many workers would take advantage of that offer. Postal unions sent out surveys three weeks ago to find out.

Hegarty added that the unions also want the Postal Service to pay for services, such as regular doctor's visits, to monitor workers' health.

Day said the facility would have new technology to detect biological agents, including a biohazard detection system and a ventilation system that will suck air out of the processing plant when activated. The biohazard detection system will scan every piece of mail that comes into the facility from drop boxes.

To help overcome psychological obstacles, the Postal Service also destroyed the machine that processed the original anthrax letters, called DBCS No. 17. An empty space remains where the machine once sat, the perimeter still marked with yellow caution tape.

"We feel that the Postal Service so far has taken reasonable steps to ensure that the facility will be safe when it reopens," Hegarty said.

However, a group of current and former workers has filed a lawsuit alleging the Postal Service deliberately left them in harm's way during the anthrax attacks. Agency officials waited several days after a contaminated letter was opened in a Senate office building before closing the Brentwood facility. The employee group, called Brentwood Exposed, say that decision put their lives at risk.

Once open, the Brentwood facility will process mail for Washington and two Maryland counties. However, mail for the federal government will continue to be processed at a facility on V Street N.E., after it is irradiated in New Jersey.

Day said the Postal Service is reviewing a proposal to build an irradiation machine at the Brentwood location. If built, all government mail could be scanned and processed at the facility, potentially saving time and money. Day said it would take about six months to review the proposal and another year to build the machine, at a cost of about $15 million.