His comments come as investigations surrounding the anthrax threat continue to focus on the postal system.
Authorities have identified three letters, including one addressed to Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, as being laced with anthrax and have tested more than 200 postal facilities. At least six postal facilities are closed due to contamination.
Postal officials have tested more than 8,800 postal employees and have placed 13,300 on preventive antibiotics in case they came in contact with the potentially deadly bacteria during their work.
Responding to criticism that not enough was done to protect the men and women who process and deliver mail, Potter explained officials were first led to believe anthrax couldn’t escape out of letters that were taped around the edges.
Potter also told a Senate committee that the anthrax incidents could cost the postal service “several billion dollars” and will change the way it does business.
He said final figures were not available, but the postal system would be seeking appropriations from Congress.
“The long-term viability [of the postal system] is not in jeopardy, but [the anthrax threat] makes it very difficult,” Potter said.
Meanwhile, the postal service is taking steps to make the mail safer. All mail from the Washington’s main Brentwood postal facility is being “sanitized” at a plant in Lima, Ohio. Two postal workers from the Brentwood post office have died from inhaled anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease.
In addition, the postal service said it had bought 4.8 million face masks for employees and 90 million pairs of high-grade gloves to provide 4-5 pairs a day to workers nationwide.
On the postal service Web site, officials posted a message seeking to reassure Americans that their mail is safe.
“Since Sept. 11, the Postal Service has delivered about 30 billion pieces of mail. That’s about five pieces for each person on earth. In that same time we’ve confirmed that three pieces were contaminated. We’re doing everything possible to reduce a very, very limited threat to zero,” the message read.
Postal service lawsuit
Not all postal workers have been satisfied with the agency’s response to the anthrax threat. The absentee rate among New York’s postal employees has climbed to nearly 30 percent since traces of anthrax were found on sorting machines.
A New York postal union filed a lawsuit Monday against the U.S. Postal Service to force the closing of New York’s biggest mail-sorting center for testing.
“We’re simply asking the post office to close the building and make sure it’s safe,” William Smith, the union president said of the 2-million-square-foot Morgan Processing and Distribution Center.
“Test everybody and tell us they haven’t been exposed. If that’s not done, we shouldn’t be in that building,” Smith said.
No postal employees in New York have come down with anthrax, but one female postal worker in New Jersey has been confirmed with inhalation anthrax and two others were previously diagnosed with the less-serious cutaneous form of the disease.
A group of Florida postal workers has also filed suit, asking for greater protection against anthrax through testing and preventative measures like face masks and gloves for postal employees.
Florida was the home of the first of the recent anthrax cases. Photographer Bob Stevens died Oct. 5 from the inhaled form of the disease. A co-worker, Ernesto Blanco, also contracted the potentially deadly inhaled form of the disease, but was released from the hospital Oct. 23.