U.S. Postal Service officials say they have solved some of the lingering problems with mail delivery since the closure of the District’s Brentwood processing center following anthrax attacks last fall.
Overflowing mail and sorting kinks at local postal stations were causing delivery delays in and around the city as recently as a week and a half ago, local post office managers said yesterday.
“Mail that used to come sorted from Brentwood is now coming unworked every day from temporary distribution facilities in either Hyattsville or Gaithersburg,” said Brian McCutchan, the station supervisor at Customs House Post Office at 3178 Bladensburg Rd. NE.
“That causes a slowdown, and it was causing a pretty substantial backup in a lot of stations, which meant a lot of long hours for our employees,” Mr. McCutchan said. “For the first time, about a week and a half ago, we were able to get caught up with mail delivery.”
It has also meant long delays in the delivery of mail. Many Washingtonians report receiving mail this year with October and November postmarks.
Brentwood, which processed the anthrax-packed letter opened in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, closed in mid-October after two postal workers died from exposure to anthrax spores.
The Postal Service has said it plans to use the same techniques and contractors used for the Hart building cleanup to rid Brentwood of anthrax contamination, although the cleanup is “definitely weeks” from getting under way.
Since Brentwood closed, some of the mail-sorting operations have been moved into a warehouse at 3070 V St. NE that was used by the Postal Service in years past as a holiday overflow facility. Most of the letters and packages going to Customs House are being sorted at and distributed from a number of other facilities in Southern Maryland where some Brentwood employees have been put to work.
Outside Brentwood, mobile postal vans have been set up to sell stamps and envelopes to customers.
“Operationally, we can continue service for as long as we need to,” said Postal Service spokesman Jerry Kreienkamp. “But clearly it is better to have a large central facility like Brentwood going because it’s a multimillion dollar facility and our operations are designed around it.”
Mr. McCutchan said that since Brentwood closed, post offices across the District have been inundated with piles of mail, heaped into bins without being sorted. “On a busy day, the 17 mail carriers at Customs House receive about 2,000 unsorted pieces of mail, which would have been sorted if it were being processed at Brentwood,” he said.
The carriers have little choice but to sort through as much of the mail as they can and get it delivered.
Postal Service officials say in the long run it is more economically efficient to have Brentwood up and running no matter what the cost of cleaning the facility.
“We plan on using the same contractor that the Environmental Protection Agency used for the cleanup of the Hart building,” said Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley.
During the Hart cleanup, crews employed an experimental technique of pumping chlorine dioxide gas into the office of Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. The gas also was pumped into the ventilation ducts of the walls surrounding the office, and chlorine dioxide liquid was used to wipe down desks, walls and other surfaces.
Some private-sector scientists have said Brentwood’s size about 200,000 square feet, compared with Mr. Daschle’s 3,000-square-foot office suite makes using chlorine dioxide extremely dangerous.
Meanwhile, since the Hart building reopened on Jan. 22, skepticism has mounted among U.S. senators over the more than $14 million EPA reportedly spent on the cleanup job.
According to Mrs. Yackley, the EPA used one of it’s regular contractors IT Corporation of Knoxville, Tenn. to subcontract and orchestrate the Hart cleanup. She said the Postal Service is not making public the estimated cost of using the same company to clean Brentwood.
Additionally, a growing number of congressional staffers returning to work in the Hart building have complained of headaches, skin rashes, dry mouth and eye irritation.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said that 50 congressional staffers in the Hart building complained of the symptoms during the first 13 days after it was reopened. On Monday, Mr. Grassley requested that the Office of Compliance investigate the health complaints.
Disagreements over the origin of the symptoms escalated last week when EPA National Ombudsman Robert J. Martin said he believes the cause is contaminants, such as hydrochloric acid, that sprang from spontaneous chemical reactions when technicians liberally spread chlorine dioxide through the Hart building.
However, the situation has not deterred the Postal Service from wanting to use the same process to clean Brentwood. Mrs. Yackley said officials are making progress in preparing the building for chlorine dioxide fumigation.
“Every little crack and crevice of the building has been sealed, and crews have been doing spot cleaning with chlorine dioxide liquid inside the building.”
The Postal Service has not made clear why preparation for the Brentwood cleanup is taking so much longer than preparation at the Hart Building.