YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


At Tainted Hart Building, Gas and Crossed Fingers

Fumigation: Cleanup at Senate offices where anthrax was found will rely on chlorine dioxide to kill the germs but spare the paperwork.


WASHINGTON — How do you scrub a building with nine stories, 50 senatorial suites, 1 million square feet of hallways and paper-strewn offices, and uncounted anthrax spores?

You seal it with duct tape, plastic and plywood. You remove the valuable oil paintings. You feed the goldfish. And then you fill the place up with bacteria-zapping gas, turn on the ventilation and cross your fingers.

Welcome to the Hart Senate Office Building, where bioterrorism first touched the federal government.

Until Oct. 15, when a young Senate aide working on the sixth floor opened a letter containing up to 2 grams (about .07 of an ounce) of deadly bacteria, Hart was known--if at all--as the most contemporary of the six major congressional office buildings on Capitol Hill.

Now it is the most notorious.

And the cleanup challenge is enormous.

While smaller contaminated areas have been cleansed with chemical foam or liquid bleach, the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that for the Hart building only chlorine dioxide gas, circulating through the ventilation system, will do because it is the best way to ensure that papers and files will not be damaged. It works by burrowing through the bacterium's outer coating and altering its genetic matter, rendering it harmless.

Los Angeles Times Thursday November 8, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Sen. Hart's state--A story Sunday about cleanup of an anthrax-contaminated Senate office building misidentified the state represented by the late Sen. Philip A. Hart. He was a Democrat from Michigan.

Hart, connected by corridors and a subway tunnel to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, was sealed off last week. An EPA spokeswoman said the fumigation could begin this week. If all goes well, the building will reopen by Nov. 13--"our lucky day, I'm sure," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), to whom the anthrax-laced letter had been addressed.

Senators and administration officials are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the decontamination effort. EPA officials say they are confident that chlorine dioxide can render anthrax spores harmless, but they have also told senators the cleanup of the Hart building, which has 10 million cubic feet of volume, is unprecedented in scope and scale.

"This is a high-profile first try," a Senate leadership aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The margin for error is zero."

Hart, home to half the Senate, is the newest and biggest of a troika of office buildings lining Constitution Avenue across from the Capitol. Opened in 1982 and named for the late Democratic Sen. Philip A. Hart of Illinois, the building is considered desirable by many senators because of its spacious design and modern amenities. At the center of the building, a giant kinetic sculpture by Alexander Calder, "Mountains and Clouds," dominates a skylit atrium.

The trouble at Hart began when a Daschle aide opened a letter containing a powdery substance and a note dated "09-11-01"--the date terrorist hijackers attacked the United States. "We have this anthrax," the note said. "You die now."

28 Test Positive for Exposure to Anthrax

Two days later, officials announced that more than two dozen congressional staff members--28 at the last count--had been exposed to anthrax spores. Most were Daschle aides and the rest Capitol Police officers or members of the staff of Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), whose office is next to Daschle's.

Hundreds of staff and visitors to the fifth and sixth floors in the southeast sector of the building, where Daschle has his two-floor suite, were advised to begin precautionary treatment with antibiotics. Officials say no one who was in Hart has actually become infected with anthrax.

The building was effectively closed for business that week as experts from the Defense Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA began their investigation. Senators, staff, lobbyists and constituents have been, for the most part, shut out since then.

There have been exceptions. Until Oct. 25, some senators and aides were allowed to go into the building for short periods to retrieve laptops, cell phones, files and other essentials. As recently as Tuesday, Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), whose fifth-floor office is near Daschle's, was given a waiver by the Senate sergeant-at-arms to enter the building to feed his three goldfish. A Breaux aide said the senator gave the fish timed-release food capsules. Breaux said he believes the fish will survive the planned fumigation.

Government officials also allowed senators to ask for the removal of valuables, such as paintings, that could be damaged during the decontamination. It is not known how many senators made such requests.

While tests have found anthrax contamination in the Longworth and Ford House office buildings and in the Senate mail room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the situation in Hart is unique on Capitol Hill. "In the other places, all that's been found is a trace," said Daschle spokeswoman Molly Rowley. "In the Hart building, we know there was between 1 and 2 grams of anthrax. It is a special case."

Los Angeles Times Articles