Trenton P&DC marks tenth anniversary of anthrax attacks

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 — Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. (4th CD), issued the following news release:

Ten years ago today, Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), stood with workers of the U.S. Postal Service in the parking lot of the Trenton Processing and Distribution Center in Hamilton Township, N.J., as they and all the country and all the world struggled to grasp the impact of an anthrax attack and the threat it presented to the people who worked at the plant and beyond.

Over 200 postal workers from two shifts attended today’s commemoration held in the same facility’s parking lot, including several workers at the plant who were stricken from anthrax and recovered.

“Today, 10 years after the shutdown of this facility as a result of the first case of anthrax bioterrorism in the U.S., we remember the victims of the exposure–those who got sick, those who died and those who were traumatized emotionally–and the extraordinary courage and fortitude of postal employees and management who persevered despite overwhelming concerns of contamination,” said Smith, who spoke at the event.

Five people were killed across the country–including two postal workers–from anthrax-laced letters, and 22 cases occurred nationwide. The Hamilton plant was determined to be the focal point of the attack. Due to the not-fully understood dangers of the biological threat, the facility was not immediately closed, and workers at the time were desperately seeking answers to questions about their safety and protection. The plant was closed Oct. 18, 2001, and did not reopen until March 13 2005.

In the wake of the attack, Smith worked with the USPS to prevent the unnecessary transfer of employees to distant USPS locations, and to ensure that workers would receive mileage payments for travel costs resulting from longer commutes to other work places. He also assisted in securing additional doses of Cipro for nearby Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, which had run out of the antibiotic, and later helped the hospital recoup $600,000 in expenses incurred from the response effort. He also successfully pressed financial companies not to assess fines for late payments due to the impact of the attacks on the mail.

A year after the attacks, Smith, Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (Wash., DC) requested a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The study, released in 2004, determined the USPS relied heavily on public health agencies to assess the health risks to its employees. These agencies believed the risks to be minimal until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally confirmed cases of anthrax in postal employees at the Hamilton and Brentwood, facilities. Only then did the Postal Service close these facilities.

The GAO report focused on problems the USPS had with accuracy, clarity, and timeliness in communicating with its workers. Problems with accuracy stemmed from incomplete information about health risks, and information on the medical response to anthrax contamination was unclear. The report noted the Postal Service, in one case, delayed the release of quantitative data (anthrax spore counts).

“The lessons learned have caused fundamental revisions in closure of rules and security protocols,” Smith said. “Today I am suggesting that the GAO do another ‘look-back/look-forward’ study to determine progress and possible gaps.”

Smith plans to send a formal request in the form of a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro seeking the follow-up study.