State boosts mail security

State office mailroom handlers turn up suspicious envelope

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

State mail clerks are donning gloves and using different procedures to open envelopes in the wake of anthrax scares across the state.

The state public health lab has tested numerous samples of suspect powder and materials for the potentially deadly bacterium, and none has tested positive for anthrax, said Bob King, spokesman for the governor.

But the state is requiring its mail clerks to wear gloves as a precaution, he said.

"Mailroom employees are on the frontlines in this battle," said King, who estimates the state has received 30 reports of anthrax scares so far.

"We feel, given the positive tests now coming from Congress as well as New York and Florida, that it's a prudent step to take to protect our mailroom personnel," King added.

On Tuesday mail clerks who work for the state Department of Health and Social Services were given additional training and written instructions on how to handle mail safely, said agency spokeswoman Julie Penn.

Mail clerks previously slit open envelopes and forwarded them to recipients with the contents inside and untouched. Now the clerks will take out the contents, inspect the mail for anything suspicious, then clip the contents to the envelopes before forwarding them to state workers, Penn said.

"We really don't anticipate problems," Penn said. "Its more a way of making sure our procedures are as safe as possible."

An Empire photographer was at the agency's mailroom today when a clerk received a suspicious letter that appeared to contain small pellets. The mail clerk set the letter aside and called the Juneau police, said King, the governor's spokesman.

The pellets turned out to be seeds sent by an environmental law firm in Oregon as part of a promotional mailing, said King, noting the find shut down the mail room for about an hour.

"It aroused suspicions but they did bring it to law enforcement's attention. They determined there was no threat," King said.

Juneau police have responded to three other anthrax scares in recent days. A local post office on Tuesday alerted authorities after powder spilled from a package, said police Capt. Tom Porter. The package turned out to be a box of powdered carpet cleaner torn open during shipping, Porter said.

"It was determined this was not a credible threat," he said.

The state public health lab in Anchorage is testing a powdery substance found at a U.S. Coast Guard office in the downtown Federal Building on Monday. A Coast Guard spokesman said he thought it was just debris from ceiling tiles, but the agency sent the substance for testing as a precaution.

An anthrax scare at state offices on Main Street and Third Street on Friday was a false alarm, according to test results released by the state public health lab this week.

Anchorage police and firefighters have investigated more than 30 reports of biological agent threats, but so far none have been confirmed as an actual hazard, Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch said Tuesday.

Some of the cases were unfounded and some were apparent hoaxes.

The cases range from suspicious powder found in an airport newspaper rack to a letter claiming a building was infected.

Anchorage Police Chief Walt Monegan said the calls have been a strain on his department. At least three officers respond to each. Officers sometimes don protective gear, and the calls are time-consuming, he said.

A person who makes a threat that results in a building being cleared could be charged with terrorist threatening, a felony, Monegan said.

Kathy Dye can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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