Two Senate office buildings reopened yesterday after being swept for anthrax contamination.
The Dirksen and Russell Senate office buildings had been closed Saturday, when a suspicious letter mailed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, was discovered in one of 280 barrels of quarantined congressional mail.
“All offices in the Russell and Dirksen buildings were tested for anthrax spores and reopened,” said U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols. “I’ll have the results of the environmental testing in the next two days.”
The letter, addressed to Mr. Leahy’s office in the Russell building and opened Oct. 14 in the Hart Senate Office Building, bore close resemblance to the anthrax-laced one sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. It had block printing with a slight slant to the right, an Oct. 9 postmark from Trenton, N.J., and the same nonexistent school listed as the return address.
The FBI said it was the only suspicious letter in about 300,000 pieces of congressional mail quarantined since Oct. 15. Agents have sifted through the mail at a sealed facility in the Franconia section of Fairfax for the last two weeks.
Lt. Nichols said the letter is being analyzed at the Army’s Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., and test results are not expected for several days.
“We’re still waiting to hear from the FBI whether or not the letter tested positive for anthrax,” Mr. Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle, said yesterday.
It was not clear yesterday whether the letter had reached Mr. Leahy’s office. Mr. Carle said Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told his staff not to open any mail on Oct. 12, the day it was reported that an anthrax-laced letter had been opened in the New York offices of NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.
“We don’t know how far into the building the letter came,” Mr. Carle said. “It may not have been delivered to this office at all, or it may have been delivered and returned to the mail center unopened.”
U.S. Postal inspector Dan Mihalko said the letter to Mr. Leahy contains a handwritten ZIP code of 20510 that can also be read as 20520 by optical character reader machines at the Postal Service.
“That’s the exact change needed to forward something to the State Department,” Mr. Mihalko said.
“It raises an interesting possibility that the letter to Leahy could have been misdirected through the State Department mail system, which might explain how that system got contaminated,” he said.
No Senate or House member or aide has contracted anthrax, and congressional business largely had returned to normal before this week’s Thanksgiving recess.
But the Hart building has remained closed since Oct. 17 while officials await approval of an Environmental Protection Agency plan to pump chlorine-dioxide gas into the offices of Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, where the largest concentrations of anthrax spores were found.
“Until the plan is approved, we won’t know how long it will be before the Hart building reopens,” Lt. Nichols said.
Fearing the chemicals might damage computers and artwork without killing all the spores, officials scrapped a plan to pump the gas throughout the building.
U.S. Postal Service officials are still determining how to decontaminate the District’s central mail-processing center on Brentwood Road NE, which processed the Daschle letter and has been closed since Oct. 21.
Officials have resisted using the chlorine-dioxide gas to kill anthrax spores found on seven separate mail-sorting machines. If the gas rids the Daschle-Feingold offices of spores, it likely will be used throughout Brentwood, Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley said yesterday.
“We’re waiting to see how [the gas] works,” Miss Yackley said. “This whole thing is an experimental thing; it’s not a simple matter.”
She said officials hope to have Brentwood cleaned and reopened by the end of the year, but it “won’t be before that.”
Meanwhile, State Department officials yesterday said they still believe another anthrax-laced letter is lurking in the agency’s mail system, which has been closed since Oct. 24.
The facility remains closed for further testing, and officials continue to look through mail “frozen” in State Department annexes worldwide, spokeswoman Julie Reside said yesterday.
No new cases of cutaneous or inhalation anthrax have been reported in nearly four weeks. The District’s top health official, Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, said Thursday that “clearly, we’re on the downside of this incident.”
Four persons have died from inhalation anthrax since Oct. 4.
Two other postal workers at Brentwood and the State Department employee who contracted inhalation anthrax have recovered.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.