GAO: USPS Filtration Equipment Needs Further Study

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Air filter equipment implemented by the U.S. Postal Service in postal facilities to protect against biological attacks needs further testing, according to a General Accounting Office report released yesterday.

In response to anthrax attacks last fall -- which killed five people, including two postal workers -- the USPS developed plans to install high-efficiency particulate air filtration systems at its processing and distribution centers to reduce the risk of exposure to biohazards and cross-contamination of the mail. Major mail processing centers in Washington and New Jersey remain closed until they can be decontaminated.

But the GAO states that the USPS needs to further evaluate whether the filter systems will do the job. It also questioned the estimated $245 million cost of the project and whether the electrical demand of the systems will affect other postal machinery.

After examining prototype filtration machines at two postal processing centers, interviewing postal workers and consulting with industry experts, the GAO found:

* The USPS has not yet conducted tests to determine whether the machines will meet their intended purpose of capturing anthrax spores in a mail-processing environment.

* The USPS has not determined whether the filtration equipment conflicts with plans to detect biohazards in the mail supply.

* The USPS has not analyzed how much power is needed to run filtration equipment, despite concerns by some postal employees that the requirements could cause outages.

* The USPS budget estimates for air filtration do not account for several important factors and likely underestimate the cost of the machines. Because the benefits are not known, nationwide deployment is not justified at present time, the report said.

Patrick R. Donahoe, the postal service's chief operating officer, said testing has begun with the assistance of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. He also said a preproduction version of the system is planned for installation this fall in the mail processing center at Dulles International Airport.

Donahoe also said the $245 million cost estimate nationwide was based on the best available information but probably will have to be adjusted over time. Regarding power demand, he said each installation will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The GAO study was requested by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-CA, and Danny K. Davis, D-IL. Waxman is the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee. Davis is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on civil service of the Government Reform Committee.

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Government Affairs' subcommittee on international security and proliferation and federal service has scheduled a postal oversight hearing for Sept. 27. Likely subjects are an update on the postal service's Transformation Plan, postal finances and efforts to deal with the effects of last year's anthrax attacks and planning to prevent and detect future attacks. Postmaster general John E. Potter and GAO comptroller general David Walker are expected to testify.


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