Senators say they have little confidence in EPA plan to rid office building of anthrax

Thursday, November 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Environmental workers installed chemically resistant pipe and barriers Thursday to fumigate the Senate's Hart Office Building despite a lack of confidence among some senators about the government's broader plan on anthrax.

``We're getting ready for fumigation. ... We're still on track,'' said Richard Rupert, the Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator for the Capitol Hill anthrax cleanup.

Workers plan to begin using chlorine dioxide gas over the weekend to disinfect the suite of offices in the Hart building used by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the majority leader. Outside, two of the EPA's three specially equipped vans have been humming with crews of scientists, air-monitoring gear and computers.

``The goal is to, as much as possible, make the Daschle suite gas-tight,'' Rupert said.

Senators with offices in the Hart building were skeptical of EPA's handling of the unprecedented series of anthrax scares, however. EPA has lead responsibility for issues related to environmental cleanup of hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction but gets help from more than a dozen other federal agencies along with state and local emergency responders.

``The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have very much expertise on this,'' Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Wednesday at a hearing on the progress of the cleanup. ``They don't. They need experts.''

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chaired the hearing, told EPA Administrator Christie Whitman the agency should set clear standards for determining when the building and other Senate office locations would be rid of anthrax spores.

Mikulski also said she was troubled by the lack of a central federal command to oversee and coordinate the government's response to the anthrax scares that spread from Capitol Hill to the U.S. Postal Service. It was the deaths of two Washington postal workers who inhaled spores from mail they were handling that spread dread across the nation.

Whitman told the panel her agency's goal is to return Capitol Hill buildings to a condition with ``no viable anthrax spores'' left in them. She added there ``might be a feeling that, in fact, there are levels at which it might not be a threat'' if minute traces of anthrax remained.

So far anthrax has killed five people and sickened others since it was diagnosed in early October as the cause of a Florida photo editor's death. Its first appearance in the Hart building was shortly afterward in a letter to Daschle.

Decontamination of Daschle's suite could begin by Friday night, Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police said Wednesday. Rupert said the building could be reopened in two to four weeks.

At a church across the street from the Senate buildings, both officials tried Wednesday night to assure residents of the area that the weekend cleanup will not harm them.

``I don't see the need for anyone to leave the area. The air outside these buildings is going to be monitored very closely by the EPA,'' Nichols told an hourlong gathering of about 100 people.

Gerald Pitalo, a NASA physicist whose town house is three blocks from the Hart building, said he hopes EPA will be ``detailed enough and careful enough'' but said they seemed to know what they are doing.

Still, he worries about air leaving the Hart building through ducts.

``I walk by this building every day, and I'd like to know that everything in it that's supposed to be killed will really be dead,'' Pitalo told officials at the meeting.

Cleanups using liquid or foam decontaminants already have begun in some of the 13 other senators' offices _ all but two in Hart, where half the Senate's 100 members have offices _ where traces of the deadly bacteria were found.

``No one's going into the books; no one's going into the papers; no one's going into the drawers; so how can we be sure (spores are) not there?'' Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, demanded of Whitman on Wednesday.

Under such grilling, Whitman's tone grew increasingly icy. She repeatedly explained that everyone was in uncharted territory.

``It is the biggest challenge we've ever faced,'' she said. ``We are writing the book as we go along. ... We have been as comprehensive as we believe is necessary.''