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Report: Congress Delayed Anthrax Cleanup

An all but unnoticed report released by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year details the substantial difficulties cleanup teams encountered in ridding Capitol Hill office buildings of anthrax in 2001, including complications created by Congress itself.

For example, the EPA and other agencies involved in the effort were given inaccurate, outdated maps of the office buildings by the Architect of the Capitol, dramatically slowing and complicating the process, the report said.

Additionally, repeated special requests to obtain items from particular offices further delayed the decontamination by resulting in “resource constraints” and “delayed the accomplishment of mission-critical objectives.”

“These interruptions were frequent and time-consuming, which meant the [on-scene coordinators] were taken away from directing process and solving problems. Better internal communication would have helped prioritize and schedule these tasks,” according to the report.

The cleanup — which began after anthrax-tainted letters were sent to Capitol Hill in October 2001 and eventually included five Congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court and a Northeast D.C. mail warehouse — was also hindered by a “complex command structure” with too many decision-makers, the report reads.

Overall, nine federal and two District agencies were involved in the decontamination, in addition to the AOC, the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms, the Capitol Police and the Senate curator’s office. But it was primarily the top of the command structure that proved problematic, according to the report.

A diagram in the 125-page document delineates the command structure, with House and Senate leaders at the top. Reporting directly to them were Attending Physician John Eisold, the Capitol Police Board and a public health adviser. Dr. Douglas Stutz, the incident commander and later project manager, reported to the police board, and EPA Project Coordinator Richard Rupert reported to him. (Rupert, in his capacity as an on-scene coordinator for EPA, wrote the report.)

“The uppermost tiers of the structure of the [incident command system] did not function properly. The structure existed on paper, but the response actually functioned differently, sometimes even independently of the structure. As a result, resources were committed and assigned somewhat randomly,” the report reads. “Had such an empowered, unified command structure been implemented in this response, many of the difficulties encountered in all areas of the response may have been lessened or eliminated.”

But by far the biggest challenge to the cleanup was that the process was pioneered as it went along. Never before had anthrax spores been removed from an occupational setting.

“There were no templates, guidances, or standard operating procedures to follow,” the report states.

But despite both organizational and technical setbacks, the report makes clear that the cleanup, although fraught with complications, was completely successful in its objective.

“None of the responders or the persons who re-occupied the buildings have exhibited any symptoms of exposure to anthrax spores,” and no significant amount of chlorine dioxide gas was released into the surrounding neighborhood.

The sheer magnitude of the task — remediating trillions of anthrax spores in Congressional office buildings during a time of national crisis — also becomes clear in EPA’s assessment of the cleanup.

Almost 10,000 samples were collected, few of which were lost. Huge amounts of data were managed and processed to evaluate the extent of the contamination and eventually to verify remediation. More than 300,000 pounds of contaminated waste went to the Army’s lab at Fort Detrick, Md., for destruction, and the 14,000 gallons of water used during the remediation were purified. Approximately 3,250 bags of “critical” items were removed from Congressional offices for decontamination in Richmond, Va.

The latter accomplishment didn’t come without significant setbacks, however.

Cleanup teams asked staff to identify critical items that should be removed for off-site decontamination. Critical items were originally defined as those either vital to Congressional business operations or personal effects of significance, but “the original intent to designate only certain items as critical led rapidly to a larger number of items becoming critical items,” the report said. The result was that hundreds, if not thousands, of items such as coffee mugs and staplers were bagged, tagged and decontaminated only to be later thrown out by offices.

In addition to having a more streamlined process for “critical” items, cleanup teams also realized later that they should have interviewed staff about mail paths to complement building plans.

For example, building plans indicated mail slots on doors, but samplers later found that they had been painted over and thus weren’t a part of the mail delivery system. Congressional staff also could have helped identify inaccuracies on the building maps for their respective offices.

“Most of the building plans obtained from AOC were old and inaccurate. The sampling plans, based on inaccurate building schematics, sometimes indicated samples to be collected at locations that did not exist,” according to the report, which also said having Congressional maintenance staff or technicians pre-trained so that they could accompany planners and/or samplers into the zone would have been “helpful.”

But not only was the remediation successful, it could be used as a future template. “During the responses, the state of the science (decontamination methods for anthrax) was advanced,” the report said.

“Should a similar response be mobilized in the future, procedures were developed that could be replicated and implemented again.”

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