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US Congressional Offices Set to Reopen Following Ricin Scare - 2004-02-04

Authorities are preparing to reopen the three U.S. Senate office buildings closed after the deadly poison ricin was discovered in one of them on Monday.

Hazardous materials experts, with assistance from the U.S. Marines, have been hard at work decontaminating the Dirksen Senate office building, where the ricin was found. They also have been checking the other two Senate office buildings closed amid the scare to make sure there has been no other contamination.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says the workers have made enough progress to allow one of the buildings to open Thursday, another Friday and the Dirksen building to open Monday.

Senator Frist says air monitoring equipment, installed after anthrax-laced letters were delivered to two Senators in 2001, show that the ricin contamination has been isolated.

"All that monitoring and filtering equipment employed, the filters all have been demonstrated to be clean, and therefore there has not been aerosolization of this agent," he said.

No illnesses have been reported as a result of the ricin contamination.

Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities are investigating whether the ricin found on Capitol Hill is linked to the same toxin discovered in letters at mail facilities serving the White House and a South Carolina airport last November. The existence of those letters were revealed only Tuesday, and authorities say they posed no public health concerns.

Capitol Hill Police Chief Terrance Gainer would not comment on whether the incidents are linked.

"There is no 'smoking letter' information that helps tie this thing together. We are keeping an open mind, we are looking at all the facts, and it is being jointly analyzed with the FBI," he said.

Mail delivery has been suspended to Capitol Hill, and mail received over the past week has been confiscated.

Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has been concerned about the disruption in communication with his constituents. "We had to direct all of our phone calls from the Hart building to my district office in Iowa," he said. "I am advising people who mailed us mail within the last 10 days, because they are gathering up all the mail that has arrived recently, that that may go in the same big black hole that it went in when we had the anthrax scare. So people who wrote to me within the last 10 days ought to re-send the letter."

Senate Majority Leader Frist says Senators are being allowed to access their offices to retrieve essential documents while clean-up efforts are continuing.