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Mail Quarantine Plagues Government Anthrax Outbreaks Disrupt Washington Postal Service

By Elizabeth Shogren
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON -- At the Labor Department, where incoming mail has been disrupted for 10 days, dozens of enforcement cases are jeopardized because the timing on legal deadlines is set when a litigant mails a document.

At the passport office, applications for passports have not been opened, so applicants’ foreign trips could be in peril.

And at the Capitol, congressional staffers charged with reading constituents’ mail have been dispatched to district and state offices since no mail is coming to Capitol Hill.

The mountain of mail that has been sequestered from agencies and Congress because of the anthrax scare represents thousands of attempts by Americans to seek the services of their government.

Greater dependence on phones, faxes, express mail and e-mail has filled in many of the gaps, but the cutoff of postal service has complicated government operations from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Patent and Trademark Office.

At least 30 tons of mail has been trucked to Lima, Ohio, where a private company will irradiate it to kill any anthrax bacteria with machines such as the ones used to decontaminate meat. It will be shipped back to Washington, where FBI agents and postal inspectors will analyze it for clues about the anthrax cases.

Meanwhile, Labor Department officials have been reaching out to judges and the other parties to identify what documents might be among the millions of pieces being held -- and whether legal deadlines can be extended until the paperwork can be refiled.

“It has forced us to do a lot of legwork,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for the department.

The Washington bureau of the U.S. passport office, which receives mail from two facilities where postal workers have contracted anthrax, has stopped opening mail.

“It’s obviously inconvenient,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “We are working with the Postal Service and others to try to get this back up and running as soon as possible.”

For Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) the lack of mail added to the confusion of being locked out of her office in the Hart Senate Office Building, which is still being tested for anthrax. Boxer usually gets 5,000 to 10,000 letters a week.

“It’s another link to folks back home,” said David Sandretti, the senator’s spokesman. “We are still getting phone calls and e-mail. But when someone sits down at a kitchen table and writes a letter and licks a stamp -- that’s a powerful message to an elected official. When it’s gone, it’s missed, no question about it.”

Constituents’ mail isn’t the only thing congressional offices are missing. The scheduler for Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) has had the new responsibility of chasing down bills that are among the quarantined mail, according to his spokeswoman Harmony Allen.