WASHINGTON – President Bush asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked by toxins - the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices.
Critics said Thursday they were surprised by Bush's request, included in his 2005 budget proposal. Its release coincided with the discovery of the poison ricin (search) in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office on Monday.
"It is a stunning example of the budget choices this administration has made, where tax cuts for elites are more important than public health or adequate homeland security," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Daschle's office was the target of an anthrax (search)-laced letter in October 2001 when he held Frist's job.
White House budget office spokesman Chad Colton said that each of the administration's budgets, including its 2005 proposal, has "invested substantial resources" into studying ways of preventing and responding to bioterrorism.
Buried in documents justifying the Environmental Protection Agency's (search) budget plan is an acknowledgment that Bush's proposed research cut "represents complete elimination of homeland security building decontamination research."
In the documents, the agency said that losing the research money would "force it to disband the technical and engineering expertise that will be needed to address known and emerging biological and chemical threats in the future."
There have now been two toxin attacks, first anthrax and now ricin, that have caused serious disruptions in Congress.
The EPA this week joined the FBI and 100 Marines from the corps' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (search) to investigate, clean up and collect all mail from all congressional offices as a precaution.
So far, intensive testing of the office mailroom used by Frist, R-Tenn., in the Dirksen Senate Office Building has not traced the deadly poison's origin.
In 2001, the EPA for the first time had to decontaminate a government building of anthrax bacteria. Anthrax-laced envelopes were mailed that fall to news media and government offices, including those of Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The cleanup of the nine-story Hart Senate Office Building cost more than $23 million. It took three months before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) declared it safe.
Around the country, five people were killed and 17 sickened after coming into contact with letters containing anthrax. The EPA also worked with postal officials and other experts to decide how best to decontaminate the Brentwood postal facility in Washington and the Trenton postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J.
The EPA was given responsibility in 1998 for cleaning up buildings and other sites contaminated by chemical or biological agents due to terrorism. Eliminating money for agency research into building decontamination would be irresponsible, environmentalists said.
"When it comes to the EPA budget, these people are so reckless with the red pen that they'll chop out even programs essential to protecting Americans from terrorist attacks," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust (search), an advocacy group. "Building decontamination has been EPA's homeland security role."