WASHINGTON -- Postal Service workers weren't told they may have been exposed to the poison ricin last year in a letter intercepted before reaching the White House, the head of the largest postal union said yesterday, accusing the government of a double standard that favors politicians.
Workers "will not be treated like a canary in the mining industry," said William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 366,000 employees.
Burrus was testifying at a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the future of the Postal Service and its work force.
The letter, released Monday by the FBI, was signed "Fallen Angel" and had an Oct. 17 postmark from Chattanooga, Tenn. It was addressed to the White House and was intercepted Nov. 6 by the Secret Service at an offsite mail-processing facility in Washington.
The Postal Service referred questions about Burrus's criticism to the Secret Service. Ann Roman, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said it had notified the FBI, the Postal Service, and other government agencies on Nov. 12 that the letter tested as likely containing ricin. It was up to other agencies to decide whether and how the information would be released, she said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has said that Homeland Security officials held a Nov. 13 conference call with the FBI, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Postal Service, and other agencies to discuss what to do.
Ultimately, the ricin in that letter was deemed to be of a low grade and not a threat to public health, so no announcement was made, McClellan has said.
Burrus asked why postal workers who had probably handled the letter were not informed. "In the anthrax attacks, we rationalized the disparate treatment of postal employees as compared to the occupants of Senate office buildings, but the ricin attacks expose the fact that there is a double standard," he said.
Burrus said the union and its members did not know about the incident last fall until ricin was found Feb. 2 in an office of the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee. Three Senate office buildings were closed for several days afterward.