Congress Approves Defense Bill, $500 Million for USPS

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The House and Senate both approved a $20 billion Sept. 11 relief package yesterday that includes $500 million for the U.S. Postal Service to screen and sanitize the nation's mail.

The House vote was 408-6 and the Senate was 94-2. The anti-terrorism package, the second half of the $40 billion Congress approved immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, gives the Defense Department an extra $3.5 billion.

The money going to the USPS would pay for additional security measures, not to help the agency make up for any lost revenue from lower mail volume since Sept. 11 and the anthrax scares. If President Bush signs the bill, postal officials will need to send a report to Congress to detail exactly how they will spend the $500 million. Postmaster general John E. Potter was vague with specifics in a letter to House and Senate appropriators this month.

"[The USPS] will aggressively pursue the purchase and installation of biohazard detection equipment for our major processing centers, special vacuums for facilities and vacuum modifications to our equipment," Potter wrote.

The core of the agency's strategy is the combined use of irradiation, detection and cleansing, Potter said. However, postal officials aren't expected to continue with the current system.

"While we are still interested in irradiation, right now we are focusing on detection and cleaning equipment," a source at the postal service said. "There are some problems with the current system, and we are not sure we or our customers can live with this."

The only mail being irradiated now is addressed to the federal government, media outlets and postal offices in Washington as well as mail that piled up in the New Jersey and Washington facilities where anthrax was found. Some of the sanitized mail is arriving slightly damaged and discolored from the technology, turning white business envelopes pale yellow and brittle, shrinking the transparent strips and changing the texture of the paper inside. In other instances, platinum-colored credit cards have reportedly turned gold, as have platinum-colored CDs.

Though the agency is aware that irradiation has damaged mail, no complaints have been filed, a USPS spokesman said.

Postal officials discussed which mail-sanitization technology to use with the General Accounting Office and the House Government Reform Committee this month, but no decisions were made. Among the ideas suggested: Put windows on all envelopes, and set up a stamp buyers' identification system requiring all postal customers to show ID before buying stamps.

More complex suggestions involved creating a "track-and-trace" system in which the USPS would track packages throughout their journeys. Another proposal was to use different mail streams for the various types of mail so that film, for instance, would not follow the same mailing process as a consumer's credit-card payment.

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