United States Postal Service:

Information on the Irradiation of Federal Mail in the Washington, D.C., Area

GAO-08-938R: Published: Jul 31, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2008.

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In October 2001, spores of the deadly bacterium anthrax were found in mail sent to members of the news media and congressional leaders. In all, 22 people were infected with anthrax and 5 people died, including 2 postal workers. The United States Postal Service (Service) took a variety of steps to protect people from biohazards in the mail. For example, the Service began contracting for the irradiation of mail to recipients at the Congress, the White House, and federal agencies with specific ZIP Codes (20201 through 20597) in the Washington, D.C., area (D.C. federal mail). The irradiation process uses either a high-energy electron beam or X-rays to penetrate pieces of mail (mailpieces) and kill harmful organisms, such as anthrax. The Service initially hired two contractors to irradiate the mail, one of which operated between November 2001 and April 2002. The other contractor has been irradiating mail since November 2001. In addition, the Service hired contractors to transport the mail for irradiation and to oversee the current irradiation contractor. Senate Report 110-129, dated July 13, 2007, directed GAO to report on the status of the Service's program for irradiating D.C. federal mail since November 2001. In response to the directive, this report describes: (1) the volume of mail irradiated and how the volume has changed, (2) the cost of irradiating mail and how the cost has changed, and (3) the extent to which irradiation delays mail deliveries and how these delivery delays have changed. In addition, given continuing congressional interest, this report also provides information on the status of an irradiation facility in Washington, D.C.

On July 23 and July 28, 2008, we briefed your staffs on the results of our work. This report formally conveys the information provided in those briefings. In summary, we found the following: According to available data, about 1.2 million containers of D.C. federal mail were irradiated from November 2001 through April 2008, and the volume of mail irradiated is declining. Nearly all of this mail volume was First-Class Mail packed in boxes weighing from about 15 to 20 pounds. The average number of mail containers irradiated monthly declined from about 23,700 in fiscal year 2002 to about 11,700 in fiscal year 2007. The decline in the volume of mail irradiated is due to a number of factors, including overall decreases in mailings of First-Class Mail and agencies' actions to bypass the irradiation process, such as by changing their mailing addresses (Zip Code) or using alternative sources of mail delivery--FedEx, for example. The cost for irradiating D.C. federal mail exceeded $74.7 million from November 2001 through April 2008, based on available data. The vast majority of these costs, about $66.2 million (89 percent), was for contractors to transport and irradiate the mail and for the oversight contractor to manage and oversee the current irradiation contractor. The remaining costs, about $8.5 million (11 percent) were for the Service's staff, supplies, and mail preparation facility, among other expenses. Although the Service's deliveries to agency mail rooms (and third-party agents hired to receive and handle an agency's mail) were initially delayed up to 3 months in the months immediately following the October 2001 anthrax incident, by late February 2002, the time frame for delivering irradiated mail had decreased to about 8 days. Currently, D.C. federal mail typically is delayed 2 to 3 days. Additional delays have been infrequent but have occurred because of factors such as repair and maintenance at the irradiation facility that affect entire trailer loads of mail, as well as packing errors and irradiation damage that affect individual boxes of mail. While Congress appropriated $7 million in 2005 for an irradiation facility in Washington, D.C., the Service has not yet used the funds but is exploring options that may provide an opportunity to use them. In January 2008, the Service decided to abandon its efforts to build an irradiation facility in Washington, D.C., because of cost and other considerations, deciding instead to continue contracting for these services. According to Service officials, the Service will decide how, or whether, to use the $7 million appropriation after the Service has (1) received and evaluated contractor offers on its solicitation for the continuation of irradiation services and (2) completed the solicitation process--a process that is expected to conclude in early 2009.

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