The first stages of a long-awaited fumigation process designed to kill anthrax inside the quarantined postal plant on Brentwood Road NE began on time yesterday afternoon and without any apparent glitches.
At 3:18 p.m., technicians pumped chlorine dioxide gas into the postal facility, as officials from a host of local and federal agencies monitored the building for leaks and the air for gas. All was quiet a few minutes later, and life went on in this corner of Northeast Washington as usual. Traffic flowed along Brentwood Road, and customers filled a McDonald's restaurant less than a block away.
Yesterday's work brought to a close a year-long effort to prepare the 17.5-million-cubic-foot building for fumigation and began a months-long process of cleaning and restoration of a shuttered plant that once processed 3.5 million pieces of mail daily. "I'm not going to call it the finish line," said Thomas G. Day, the Postal Service's vice president for engineering. "I guess it's the start line."
Officials expect the fumigation process to continue through the weekend. Sometime in the middle of next week, crews are expected to enter the building to begin collecting 8,000 spore strips and taking 4,000 surface and air samples. An independent committee of specialists will review the results next month and determine whether the fumigation was a success.
Day said that if all goes well, some 1,600 postal workers could return to the facility in mid- to late April.
Washington's principal mail-processing plant has been shut since Oct. 21, 2001, after two letters containing anthrax spores passed through on their way to Capitol Hill. No one has been arrested in the anthrax mailings.
Two Brentwood postal workers -- Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55 -- died of inhalational anthrax. The building was recently renamed in their honor.
Last December, the Hart Senate Office Building was successfully fumigated for anthrax contamination and is serving as the model for the cleanup of the Brentwood Road plant. The Hart fumigation was concentrated in a 100,000-cubic-foot area, about 170 times smaller than the buildingwide area being cleansed at the postal facility, officials said.
Officials have spent a little more than a year readying the postal building for decontamination, constructing a one-of-a-kind fumigation system and completing a series of tests and equipment checks. Day said the primary reason for the lengthy delay was a conscious effort to prepare and test the fumigation system slowly and carefully. "We always went to the side of doing it slower but safer," he said.
The fumigation plan calls for about 2,000 pounds of chlorine dioxide gas to be mixed and pumped into the building, kept at certain levels inside the sealed plant for several hours and then removed and turned into wastewater. Chlorine dioxide, which was used to fumigate the Hart building, is a disinfectant often used to purify drinking water. Scientists have learned that the yellow-green gas is lethal to anthrax spores under some conditions.
The mixture was pumped into the facility through 25,000 feet of six-inch pipe, and monitors inside kept track of the temperature, humidity and chlorine dioxide levels. A relative humidity of 75 percent, temperature of 75 degrees and a gas concentration of 750 parts per million must be maintained for an effective fumigation.
The gas was not expected to reach an appropriate level until this morning. The gas, temperature and humidity must be sustained at the appropriate levels for another 12 hours. The fumigation is considered a success when no samples show anthrax growth. City health officials have said that if one anthrax spore is found, the building will not be reopened.
Day said the cost of decontamination at Brentwood Road and a postal plant in New Jersey has exceeded $100 million. "The engineering challenge was a bit more than we anticipated," Day said.
Peter G. LaPorte, D.C. emergency management director, said the city will seek reimbursement for its costs associated with the Brentwood cleanup, including overtime for police and fire personnel, from the Postal Service.
Officials stressed that the fumigation gas does not pose a danger to postal workers, residents and businesses, and that the substance is neither flammable nor explosive in the concentrations used. They said there was no need to evacuate nearby homes or businesses. The safety perimeter established was relatively small, with no one allowed within 282 yards of the building's center.
But the reassurances offered by officials at community meetings did little to put some postal workers and residents at ease. Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said union officials have received a commitment from management that employees who have concerns about returning to work at the building will be accommodated. Postal officials are prepared to place those employees in other facilities without loss of status or seniority, according to a letter from a Postal Service labor relations manager to union President William Burrus.
Yesterday, city personnel knocked on doors in neighborhoods within a mile of the site to answer questions. One of the few businesses that closed early was Capital Auto and Truck Auction, one of the plant's nearest neighbors on Brentwood Road. The auction site closed about 3 p.m., about three hours early for a Saturday. The owner, Mark S. Loesberg, said contractors hired to perform much of the work asked him to close early as a precaution. "They were nice about it," Loesberg said. "I can accommodate it."
Postal officials were confident they had thought of everything. Cracks in the building's floors and walls -- as well as on the roof and skylights -- had been sealed and rechecked for leaks. A specially equipped Environmental Protection Agency bus drove along the perimeter and monitored air quality. More than 20 air monitors were installed around the plant, and a weather station was erected on the roof for updates on wind direction and temperature.
Officials even made the airspace above a no-fly zone. "We are planning for the worst-case scenarios," LaPorte said. "The chances of them are very, very, very slight."