Government officials during December said there was a good chance that the Hart Senate Office Building, which closed nearly three months ago because of anthrax contamination, would be reopened by now.
They were wrong.
The Hart building, which was shut down on Oct. 17 after an anthrax-laced letter was opened in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office on the fifth floor, remains closed while teams of government scientists scramble to prove the success of an experimental technique that was used to rid the building of lingering anthrax.
“The first blush of test results was very encouraging,” EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Piper said yesterday. “But we still have only preliminary results.”
In December, chlorine-dioxide gas was pumped into Mr. Daschle’s office and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) ducts surrounding the office to kill the anthrax.
Before the gas was pumped in, technicians placed about 3,000 Band Aid-size test strips each one treated with a bacteria culture believed to be stronger than anthrax throughout the areas being fumigated.
After the fumigation, the strips were collected and preliminary tests have shown that the gas killed the bacteria on them. That has lead scientists to believe the gas also killed the anthrax in the building.
But there’s still not enough evidence for the EPA to “sign off” and reopen the building, Miss Piper said. “Scientists now have to look at the test strips for several weeks to see if the strips regrow cultures.”
The goal is to ensure that there is “no detectable growth” of anthrax spores inside the Hart building since the fumigation process happened, she said.
The Hart building, across from Union Station, houses offices for half of the U.S. Senate’s 100 members.
On Dec. 30, Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the fumigation effort was effective and there was a “reasonable possibility” the building would be reopened by now.
Mr. Daschle was unavailable for comment yesterday because he is leading a delegation of six members of Congress on an official visit to Afghanistan. His staff referred all questions about the Hart building to U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.
“We’re waiting on the EPA and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to analyze environmental tests that have been conducted throughout the building, including the fumigation of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system,” Lt. Nichols said. “Until we hear from them, we can’t move forward.”
Meanwhile, the District’s central mail-sorting center on Brentwood Road NE also remains closed. Brentwood was contaminated with anthrax spores in early-October when it processed the Daschle letter and another anthrax-laced letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
U.S. Postal Service officials have said they intend to begin using the chlorine-dioxide gas to clean the building during the coming months. “We’re waiting to get all the scientific results from the Hart cleanup to be able to judge what we need to do to make that process work on the Brentwood building,” said Postal Service spokesman Jerry Kreienkamp.
There have been 11 confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax since the anthrax attacks last October. Five persons have died an editor at a newspaper in Florida, two D.C. postal workers, a New York hospital worker and an elderly Connecticut widow.