Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

November 7, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights

reserved.

Snail Mail: Still a Survivor

Disparagingly called "snail mail," the United

States Postal Service had been all but dismissed in popular culture.

It was seen as a fading anachronism, taking days to deliver messages

while E-mails zipped all around it sending news and greetings at the

speed of sound. Who needed the post office, anyway?

We all do, it turns out.

The Princeton main post office, located at Roszel Road in the Carnegie

Center, re-opened on Monday, November 5, after being closed for a

week following the discovery of anthrax in one of its mail bins.

Diane Williams, a post office spokesperson, said operations were back

to normal, but on the first day of its reopening, signs of tumult

were everywhere. A large, white tent, big enough to contain a

respectable

circus, still sat behind the post office. Customers converged on its

parking lot, quickly filling it to overflowing, and then started

driving

onto the grass.

Out in back, the loading dock, an oasis of order in normal times,

was filled to the edge. Employees moved mail bags around in the open

air with fork lifts and tractors, maneuvering around scores of stacked

pallets. Dozens of rolling bins stood in the parking lot —

evidence

that the post office had been through a tough week. A charcoal grill,

used by employees locked out of their kitchen, helped give the scene

the air of a military encampment.

An employee, hustling to get the mountains of mail moving, took time

out to tell a longtime business customer that there were no guarantees

his bulk mail would make it out that day. "We have a week’s worth

of mail here," the employee said. The customer said he couldn’t

imagine complaints, given the situation. Oh, but indeed there had

been complaints, reported the postal worker, many of them from

politicians

racing to get their messages into mail boxes in the final hours before

Election Day.

The shut down of the Princeton main post office appeared

to be related to its place in the chain of mail delivery, and its

operations will continue to be affected by it. The facility receives

much of the mail it delivers from the Trenton main post office in

Hamilton, through which anthrax-laden letters were sent to Senate

Majority Leader Tom Daschle, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, and the New

York Post newspaper.

How the Princeton main post office became involved may be one of many

extraordinary stories in this saga. Carl Walton, a post office

spokesperson,

said an employee at the Roszel Road facility suspected his clothes

had come into contact with a suspicious substance. The clothes were

stowed in plastic bags, and placed in a mail bin. That bin was taken

away to be tested by health officials. What happened next, Walton

called "bizarre." The clothes tested negative for anthrax,

but an anthrax spore was found on the bin. And so the post office

was closed.

The post office was tested, but no traces of anthrax were found

anywhere

else. IT Corporation, an environmental clean-up business with offices

on Horizon Boulevard in Robbinsville, cleaned up the facility during

the weekend of November 3 and 4. Mike Vollo, who is in charge of nine

post office clean-ups IT is conducting, said he was not on location

for the clean-up, but assumes it was done on the area from which the

affected bin had been removed.

The usual procedure, Vollo said, is to vacuum large particles —

visible dust, for example — with a HEPA (high efficiency particle

arresting) vacuum. Then, the area is sprayed with a chlorine solution

applied with an airless sprayer. It is airless, Vollo explained,

because

"you don’t want a lot of pressure blowing things all over the

place." The solution sits for about half an hour. Then a water

rinse is applied, and the area is wiped clean.

This method is effective in clean-ups like that in the Princeton main

post office. "Princeton was not a major clean up," he said.

That was so because contamination was limited. The Trenton main post

office in Hamilton is a different matter. In that case, "you’re

not talking about a small table," Vollo said. "It’s a 300,000

to 400,000 square foot building with a lot of machines and conveyor

belts."

Doing a clean wipe, the procedure used in the Princeton main post

office, is all but impossible in a facility that size. "There’s

got to be a better way," Vollo said. His company removed the mail

from the Trenton main post office to trailers two weeks ago, and is

on standby to start a clean-up of the building. He said the Hart

Senate

Office Building in Washington D.C., where anthrax has been found,

is being cleaned with a chlorine dioxide solution. That combination

is "highly explosive and highly flammable," he said. An

alternative

being considered is a solution of hydrogen peroxide combined with

detergent, which Vollo said is safer and more stable.

Mail delivery will continue to be slower than normal, according to

post office spokesperson Williams, until the Trenton main post office

is back on line. It affects the operations of 47 post offices

throughout

central New Jersey. Post offices up and down the Route 1 corridor

were tested for anthrax on the weekend of November 4. All remain open

pending results, expected around November 9.

The 47 post offices, including the Princeton main post office, do

not have sorting equipment. Their mail normally goes to the Trenton

main post office for sorting. Mail for those post offices is now being

sorted at the Kilmer post office in Edison and the Monmouth post

office

in Eatontown.

Two employees at the Monmouth post office became ill with what they

believed to be anthrax, but those cases have not been confirmed. A

postal union sued to have the facility closed, but a judge ruled

against

the union. Postal spokesperson Walton said both Monmouth and Kilmer

have been tested for anthrax, and that tests on both facilities were

negative.

Another issue is the disposition of the mail that was inside the post

office on October 18 when it was closed. Williams says she does not

know how much mail is in limbo, or when it will get out. The latest

report is that it will be trucked to South Jersey where it will be

sanitized.

One fact is not in dispute. The mail disruption has hurt. Despite

a vague public perception that the USPS is a creaky dinosaur, it turns

out that there is no real alternative to snail mail, especially for

businesses. Calls to four area courier services turned up no increase

in business, despite the fact that delivery by the USPS slowed to

a trickle on a number of days during the past several weeks. The

reason

is simple, as Glenn Dudley, a dispatcher for Nassau Courier Service

explained.

"We’ve gotten inquiries here and there, but we’re more

expensive,"

Dudley said. How much more expensive? Well, the letter that the USPS

charges 34 cents to carry from, say, Princeton to Lawrence, is $20

by courier. Send the letter to Newark, and it’s still 34 cents by

USPS, but the courier rate goes up to $75. There are substantial

discounts

for additional letters going to the same place, but courier service,

which picks up and delivers on demand, is far too expensive for most

business purposes.

It is a similar story with the mail centers that send out letters

via UPS or Federal Express. None reported an increase in business.

Again, price is a factor. It costs about $7 to send a letter traveling

by UPS from Princeton to another point in the state.

Of course, any number of messages both personal and business, avoid

not only the post office, but also paper, and whiz through the ether

via E-mail. But the anthrax scare illuminated examples of mail that

can not easily travel that way. The result has been hardship both

for mail recipients, and for businesses that depend on the mail.

Area companies have reported that there have been days when nothing

at all has come through. Many smaller companies rely on the checks

the mail brings to keep their businesses going. Even a few days’

disruption

has an effect. And Princeton University, which had a November 1

deadline

for early decision applicants, had to assure high school seniors from

around the country that it would be lenient this year with its

deadline.

On the other side of the mail box, any number of local businesses

owe their very existence to the USPS. Selling lists of post office

addresses, for example, is big business. American List Counsel at

4300 Route 1 North employs approximately 135 people who do just that.

Emily Briody has been a list broker there for 10 years. She reported

that business at her company has dropped 25 to 30 percent. "It’s

not as big a concern with big clients," she said. "Citibank

is still mailing."

But, says Briody, "smaller mailers are reluctant to send things

through the mail." They fear consumers are just throwing mail

away unopened.

Briody said some clients are asking about switching to E-mail lists.

This can work, but not in every case. The biggest barrier is that

E-mail lists simply do not exist in the same way that lists of postal

addresses do. Of a typical request, Briody says, "it could be

someone looking to mail to 50 bakers in Alabama." While it is

possible to carve up the population that finely with postal mail,

no such super-specific lists of E-mail addresses exist.

Leland Kroll, president of Kroll Direct Marketing at 666 Plainsboro

Road, pointed out that bulk mail, which moves in large packages on

skids, is not likely to come in contact with an anthrax-laced maniac

missive. Still, he said, consumers who fear the mailed advertisements

may be contaminated quickly toss them out, unopened. Kroll just came

back from a direct mail convention in Chicago, where he heard that

direct mail volume is down 30 to 40 percent. "A lot of campaigns

are being held," he said.

The ripples go on and on. Both Briody and Kroll said this is the

busiest

time of year for mailings. This is when holiday catalogs go out, and

when charities send out their appeals. There are no real alternatives

to mailing solicitations of either kind. Kroll said E-mail works in

some, but not all, instances. In some cases it can be used to

supplement

mailings. E-mail messages can be sent announcing that a letter or

package is on its way, thereby giving consumers some level of comfort,

or E-mail can direct potential donors or customers to an

organization’s website.

Paper mail, the kind the USPS delivers, is the best choice for direct

mail, Briody and Kroll agreed. And it is indispensable for so many

other functions, sending invoices and — especially — receiving

checks, to name two. So, Kroll was asked, if this is it, if no more

letters with anthrax chasers turn up, will consumers feel comfortable

about opening envelopes again?

No, at least not right away, Kroll said. For comfort to return, he

predicted, "the postal authorities will have to say `Everything’s

fine. Everything’s wonderful.’" Without assurances that the mail

is secure, opening a letter will not be an automatic,

no-thought-required

activity for a long, long time.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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