Reopening of anthrax-closed Hart Senate Office Building put on hold

Thursday, January 17th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Plans to reopen the Hart Senate Office Building, which has been closed for three months due to anthrax contamination, were put on hold Thursday after gear associated with the cleanup was found inside the building.

In addition, basement rooms in the adjoining Dirksen Senate Office Building that share the same ventilation system have been closed, the Senate's Sergeant at Arms office said in a statement on its Web site.

The statement said bagged ``personal protective gear used in dealing with hazardous material'' had been found in the hallway ceiling outside Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office on the sixth floor of the Hart building.

``It has not been determined whether this discovery poses a health risk,'' the statement said. Capitol Police later said preliminary tests on the material did not find contamination, with final results not expected before Friday.

``The Hart building will remain closed and the cleaning of the Hart building has been suspended pending the receipt and analysis of test results,'' police said in a statement.

About 25 people who were in the area of the discovered gear have been placed on preventive antibiotics.

Just one day earlier, officials had pronounced the building free of anthrax, and maintenance crews began preparing it for a Friday reopening. Health and environmental officials had said repeated efforts to cleanse the building had ``achieved the goal of eliminating viable anthrax spores.''

The building was closed after a letter believed to contain billions of anthrax spores was opened Oct. 15 in Daschle's office.

The letter _ which also contained a threatening note _ came as anthrax was detected in dozens of locations around Washington, New York and elsewhere, causing five fatalities and a national focus on bioterrorism. The nine-story Hart building, which houses the offices of half the 100 senators, has been closed since Oct. 17.

In the initial days after the Daschle letter was opened, officials said Hart could be cleaned up and reoccupied by mid-November.