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Norton Blasts Postal Service Over Anthrax Security

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) sharply criticized U.S. Postal Service officials Tuesday for failing to install new security measures in the facility that processes mail for Congress and other government agencies, and demanded the agency make changes in biohazard security in 30 days.

“Everything should be done in facilities handling government mail to protect workers,” Norton said at a Government Reform subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “There is a far greater danger to the average American and the postal workers than anyone else.”

The hearing, which focused on “Assessing Anthrax Detection Methods,” was prompted by the recent anthrax scare at a Pentagon mail facility.

The USPS is now in the process of installing new biohazard detection systems in each of its major mail-processing and distribution centers, such as the Brentwood facility in Northeast Washington. Such detection systems can be programmed to detect a variety of “bioagents,” including anthrax and ricin.

The V Street postal facility in Northeast, which handles mail for the federal government, was cited by Norton while questioning Thomas Day, the vice president of engineering for the Postal Service.

She learned that the facility, which was closed last month as a precaution when the Pentagon facility closed, was not one of the 107 that were receiving the new biohazard detection system and was not on the list to receive it anytime soon. She went on to question Day about his priorities.

When Day had no clear answer about when the facility would be updated with the new security system, she gave him a deadline of 30 days to make a priority schedule and submit it to the committee.

When asked about the priority of the V Street postal facility, a press representative from the USPS stated, “I don’t have the actual date but I know that the installation of a bio-detection system at V Street is high on the list. It has been high on the list.”

Norton also expressed concern with the V Street facility over its use of industrial fans in place as a method of cooling — a practice that was supposed to have been abolished after the anthrax scares of 2001. Norton used the facility in Brentwood, where two employees had been killed by anthrax in 2001, as an example. Their industrial fan system was replaced by an air conditioning system shortly after the deaths.

When she questioned Day about why the fans were still being used at the V Street facility when many other facilities had been updated with air conditioning systems, Day responded simply that the V Street facility is not equipped with an air conditioning system. He also stated that because the V Street employees only place letters on trays to be sent to New Jersey for irradiation, and don’t handle what is inside, the fans are not considered a risk to their health.

Norton was not satisfied. She said that it is not safe for the employees to handle potentially dangerous mail before it has been irradiated and with big fans blowing. Having air conditioning would limit the risk of illness resulting from biological agents.

Day affirmed that he would look into the matter.

Norton went on to ask that V Street be placed at the top of the list to be protected by any means from future biological threats. Day assured Norton that he would do as she requested, but there is not yet an official date for when these changes will be made.

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