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US Senate Awaits Anthrax Test Results - 2001-12-06

Workers in Washington have finished fumigating offices in the Hart Senate Office Building that had been contaminated with anthrax. They expect to get test results back later this week, hoping they prove the lengthy process got the job done. But, 50 U.S. Senators and their staff will still have to wait until early next year to move back into their offices.

Officials involved in the decontamination effort at the Hart building say it is unlike any other cleanup they have ever done before.

Richard Rupert, the onsite coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said they were essentially starting from scratch. "There wasn't a lot of information available on various technologies because it really hasn't been done too much, particularly because of the type of anthrax we were dealing with," he said.

Mr. Rupert said dealing with the highly dangerous, "weaponized" form of anthrax delivered to Senator Thomas Daschle's office meant teams working to clean it up had to devise a whole new strategy. "So we ended up with essentially a short list of technologies that we believed would be effective," he said. "We went through a lot of those and quickly arrived at chlorine dioxide as being the one that had the best chance at being effective."

Then the EPA team began testing chlorine dioxide on a trailer near the Brentwood mail facility outside Washington, which was also contaminated. The tests went on for three weeks, until they established what the scientists thought were the best humidity and temperature levels for the fumigation.

Workers carried out the real thing on the Hart Building overnight Saturday. Enormous, one story tall, vats sit outside the building and tubes snake in all directions. They are remnants of tons of equipment used to pump in large amounts of chlorine dioxide into Senator Daschle's offices.

Mr. Rupert said a big part of the operation was trying to get huge concentrations of the poison inside the building, but making sure very little escaped. To test the air on the streets outside, scientists used a mobile laboratory called the TAGA van - that is short for Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer. "They have sophisticated chemical analysis gear onboard. It's sort of your standard laboratory, but we put it in a motor home. It drove around the neighborhood making sure that none of the gas escaped from the suite," Mr. Rupert said.

He said they did find evidence of small leaks of the gas, but at such minuscule levels that they posed no danger to humans.

The EPA team later used another chemical to break down the deadly poison.

The offices have now been cleared of chlorine dioxide, but workers going in are still suiting up in hefty protective gear until tests show that they are clear of anthrax spores.

Mr. Rupert said he expects to start getting the first test results this week. "What remains now is to wait for the test results to come back and see if we were successful," he said. "If we were successful, its just a matter of cleaning those other eleven suites that were contaminated and calling it good."

Contamination in the other offices was much less severe, and Mr. Rupert said intense fumigation will not be required there. If all goes well, Mr. Rupert says he will be able to go home for the Christmas holiday and Senators will be able to move back into their offices in January.

But he said EPA officials plan on keeping their tons of equipment on hand if the procedure works so they can use it on other government facilities contaminated in the country's recent spate of anthrax attacks.