WASHINGTON – For postal worker Tony Magrant, this week’s announcement that the U.S. Postal Service was temporarily closing 11 facilities to test for anthrax contamination felt “a little bit eerie.”
Magrant was at the Brentwood postal facility two years ago when two fellow workers died of inhalation anthrax, forcing the closure of the giant building in Northeast Washington. More than 2,000 Brentwood workers were transferred to other facilities, including Magrant, who was moved to the Calvert Distribution Center in Prince George’s County.
On Thursday, Calvert was closed because of another anthrax scare.
The Postal Service decided to temporarily shut down Calvert and 10 other facilities after a routine air sample at the naval mail facility in Anacostia tested positive for anthrax. Anacostia and the closed facilities are all potentially linked by common mail, officials said.
Four of those facilities are in Maryland: the Calvert center in West Hyattsville, the Second Avenue Post Office in Silver Spring, the Westlake Post Office in Bethesda and the Andrews Air Force Base Post Office.
“I was thinking, ‘Here we go again,'” said Carl Dudley, who, like Magrant, worked at Brentwood and lives in Fort Washington.
Dudley was transferred to the Southern Maryland distribution facility two years ago. That facility did not close this week, but Dudley decided not to show up for work. The Postal Service has given liberal leave to Washington-area postal workers.
“If somebody else wants to go, I just say, ‘Be careful,'” Dudley said.
Magrant said the latest scare “made me a little stressed out, knowing that it’s a possibility I may have already been exposed, and they don’t know exactly where the anthrax came from.”
Since Thursday’s announcement, Dudley has made appointments with his doctor to test his hypertension and his psychiatrist to “talk to somebody about some things.”
Normally, facilities would not be closed until scientists find clear evidence of contamination, said Sam Joseph, a professor of cell biology at the University of Maryland. But this time, the Postal Service clearly “tried to be as careful as possible,” he said.
The General Accounting Office reported last month that the Postal Service had not sufficiently informed employees during the 2001 crisis, and even falsely told them that there was no anthrax in Brentwood. The service has since promised to improve communications with its workers, the GAO said.
But former Brentwood worker James Harper said employees are still left in the dark.
“You hear more about what happened from the media than from management,” said Harper, one of several former Brentwood workers who have sued the Postal Service.
In 2001, the Postal Service waited several days after the first evidence of anthrax before closing Brentwood. Critics say this violated the Postal Service’s own policy.
When a panel of Postal Service officials was asked at a congressional hearing last month whether Brentwood was “100 percent safe,” none raised their hand.
“We know that we cannot be guaranteed that if another anthrax letter is put in the mail that we won’t receive it in our facility,” said Harper, who now works at the Suburban facility in Gaithersburg. “But what we are looking for in our leaders is, if the letter goes through there, that we will be removed.”
Brentwood has already been renamed for the two employees who died, Maryland residents Joseph Curseen and Thomas Morris. It was expected to reopen before the end of the year.
Dudley figured it will be much safer when he returns there. Magrant said he will go back, too — he would lose his seniority if he chose to work somewhere else.
“They say you have choices, but the choices you have are very limited,” Magrant said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to have that job.”