Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the
November 7, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
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
circus, still sat behind the post office. Customers converged on its
parking lot, quickly filling it to overflowing, and then started
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 —
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
racing to get their messages into mail boxes in the final hours before
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
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
The post office was tested, but no traces of anthrax were found
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
the union. Postal spokesperson Walton said both Monmouth and Kilmer
have been tested for anthrax, and that tests on both facilities were
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
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
is simple, as Glenn Dudley, a dispatcher for Nassau Courier Service
"We’ve gotten inquiries here and there, but we’re more
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
for additional letters going to the same place, but courier service,
which picks up and delivers on demand, is far too expensive for most
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’
has an effect. And Princeton University, which had a November 1
for early decision applicants, had to assure high school seniors from
around the country that it would be lenient this year with its
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
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
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
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
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,
activity for a long, long time.
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
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