Lieberman Asks Postal Service For Update on Bioterrorism Protections

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., asked the United States Postal Service Wednesday for an update on steps it has taken to protect Postal workers and the public in the event of future terrorist attacks through the mails.

                In a letter to Postmaster General John Potter, dated March 19, 2002, Lieberman asked what actions the Postal Service has taken on a series of issues, including its emergency response plan, clean-up, and efforts to coordinate with other agencies.  Several Postal workers and likely others died last fall from the biological agent anthrax which was contained in mailed letters.  Two Committee hearings in October brought to public attention the question of how the Postal Service would respond should a similar tragedy occur again.

                Below is a copy of the Potter letter:

March 19, 2002

The Honorable John E. Potter
Postmaster General
United States Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza SW
Washington, DC 20260

Dear Mr. Potter:

                Last fall, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs conducted a series of hearings on homeland security. As you know, two of the hearings addressed the problems faced by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and the public due to “Terrorism Through the Mail.”  The testimony raised important issues related to how the Postal Service and other agencies are responding to these attacks and the threat of future ones.  I am now seeking to determine what action is being taken based on what we learned, and where additional work is needed.  Please respond to the following questions by April 3, 2002.

1)                On November 13, 2001, the USPS submitted a $1.1 billion request for funding to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, to help cover the costs of sanitizing the mail, protecting postal workers and the public from biohazardous material and repairing or replacing damaged postal facilities and equipment through June, 2002.  Congress appropriated $500 million for these purposes, in addition to the $175 million previously allocated to the Postal Service by the President from emergency funds, but noted that no money could be spent from this appropriation on screening and sanitizing the mail until the Postal Service presented an “emergency preparedness plan to combat the threat of biological and chemical substances in the mail” to its Congressional oversight and appropriations committees.   This plan was delivered on March 7, 2002.

A)                The emergency preparedness plan states that USPS will install HEPA-filtered vacuums on mail processing equipment. The filtration systems will capture particulate matter released during mail processing and are intended to prevent the release of biohazardous material into the mail facility and protect against cross?contamination of mail. These vacuums will be combined with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detection methodology, which is designed to detect the presence of specific biohazard signatures.  What substances will this detection system be designed to sense?  Where will it initially be deployed? What steps will be triggered by a positive test?

B)                The plan indicates that the Postal Service intends to purchase 8 electron beam irradiation systems for deployment in the Washington, D.C. and New York/New Jersey areas. Will these systems be used to treat all mail collected in these areas or will they be used just to treat mail intended for delivery to certain destinations? If the latter, what mail destinations will be selected for continued treatment and how was this determination made? Please also state what is the timetable for implementing this plan, and what categories of mail will be sanitized.  Will mail continue to be sanitized with these systems on a routine basis once the filtration and PCR systems are in place?

C)                What procedures is USPS following to protect worker health, in the event that biohazardous material is found in the mailstream?  How is the Postal Service addressing the need to avoid cross-contamination of mail, to protect the health of workers and the public?

2)             As you know, several postal facilities tested positive for contamination with anthrax in the last several months.  Contaminated machinery and work areas need remediation and cleaning before they can be put back into service.  What standards is the USPS using to determine: a) how to clean these areas most effectively; and b) when contaminated facilities have been cleaned sufficiently and present no future threat to postal employees and others?  Has the USPS sought advice from other agencies regarding its clean up efforts? If so, from whom?  What input do postal employee organizations have into the decision-making process regarding decontamination of these facilities? What advice has USPS received?  When does USPS expect that the decontamination of these facilities will be complete?             

3)             One major concern expressed in the course of the Committee’s hearings last fall was the absence of an established communication network that could quickly distribute important (and accurate) information to and from affected entities like the USPS that are on the front lines responding to an emergency.  Another concern was the lack of clear leadership denoting who was in charge of coordinating the government’s response to the anthrax attacks.  Finally, some have said that competing priorities among the agencies involved may have impeded the government’s ability to simultaneously conduct a criminal investigation and address pressing public health needs.

A)                What steps has the USPS taken to ensure that such concerns do not hamper its efforts to respond to emergencies in the future?

B)                Has the USPS coordinated with other governmental offices or agencies to work through these issues? What is the status of such efforts? Please describe any plan being developed.

C)                What other plans or assistance do you believe USPS needs to be prepared for future events?

                I look forward to your responses on these issues.  Please feel free to contact Susan Propper of my staff at (202) 224-6599 if you have any questions.


                                                                                  Joseph I. Lieberman