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No agreement on making safe site of anthrax attacks

Thursday - 9/20/2012, 7:04am  ET

After seven years and $12 million, federal agencies have reached a stalemate on sampling to ensure a building with anthrax is fully decontaminated

John Solomon, Washington Guardian

WASHINGTON - After a building has been contaminated with deadly anthrax, how do you know the cleanup has made it fully safe? The government still hasn't figured that out, an investigation concludes, even though it's been nearly 11 years since the nation was stunned by anthrax attacks.

The Homeland Security Department, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies formed a task force about seven years ago and have spent $12 million trying to resolve the issue, but have not yet reached agreement on the type of sampling necessary to ensure a building contaminated by anthrax, once cleaned up, is fully safe for human occupation, the Government Accountability Office reports.

"While progress has been made in validating sampling methods for detecting Bacillus anthracis spores in indoor environments, their validation is not yet complete. Some studies have not begun," GAO warned in a report to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which requested the review.

GAO investigators described a classic bureaucratic stalemate spanning two administrations in which various agencies can't agree on the statistical sampling tactics to ensure that a location declared safe is, in fact, free of anthrax spores. Of particular concern is making sure there are no "false negative" tests that miss spores that could sicken people who return, they said.

Several congressional buildings, media offices and postal locations were contaminated in October 2001 when an attacker sent powdery anthrax in mailed letters, attacks that stunned the country just weeks after the Sept. 11 al-Qaida terror attacks. The locations were decontaminated, but questions have persisted about how federal authorities could be sure the buildings were safe enough to allow people to resume normal activities.

The lawmakers who requested the review are flabbergasted that the issue hasn't been resolved.

"Eleven years and $12 million after the first anthrax attack, it is unimaginable that those agencies responsible for detecting the anthrax and protecting the public are still unable to coordinate their efforts and implement GAO's recommendations," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R- Mich., and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, R- Fla.

"We have invested considerable time and resources over the past seven years, and yet the working group has not completed the recommended implementation improvements because they have reached a stalemate on how to move forward," the Republican lawmakers lamented.

The GAO report apparently hasn't resolved the intra-agency squabbling.

The Homeland Security Department agreed with GAO's recommendation that the remaining statistical questions be resolved, while the Health and Human Service Department agencies and EPA concluded that, after seven years of work and millions already spent, "such an approach was not feasible or necessary."

"We continue to believe a validated statistical sampling approach will provide a broader range of options for decision makers responding," GAO urged.

Upton and Stearns said they intend to use congressional pressure to end the stalemate and resolve the remaining issues.

(Copyright 2012 by Washington Guardian. All Rights Reserved.)