Anthrax scare disrupts business

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The fourth in a series of deliveries containing a suspicious white powder was discovered at a Williston business Tuesday, attracting a crowd of federal, state and local public safety officials.

Employees were evacuated from the Resolution Inc. distribution center at Williston’s E-Commerce Park after a worker opened a manila envelope containing the white powder at approximately 10 a.m. A letter inside the envelope identified the powder as anthrax.

The letter was addressed to the A&E television network, one of Resolution’s clients.

A field test later performed by officials from Federal Protective Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ruled out the powder as either anthrax or ricin. A sample of the powder was delivered to the state health lab for testing to determine its identity.

Patricia Quarato, a U.S. Postal Service inspector, said the episode was the fourth involving Resolution in the past two weeks. Two envelopes arrived at the company’s call center in South Burlington one recent night, forcing an evacuation.

Another envelope with white powder was recently flagged at the Williston Post Office and never reached Resolution, according to Lt. Al Buck of the Vermont State Police. Postal officials have been inspecting Resolution’s mail since the call center incident. The envelope opened Tuesday had been delivered to Resolution several days ago, before postal officials started their inspections.

Each of the previous samples mailed to Resolution has proven to be flour, according to Bill Shubart, the company’s owner. Buck said the substance found Tuesday “was probably some kind of flour product.”

Shubart said A&E has been the target of each mailing. He did not know what the motive might be.

“It’s probably some wacko sitting in a dark room who’s got some grudge against them,” Shubart said.

Resolution is a media customer service and fulfillment company with clients like the New York Times and CBS. Shubart said Resolution periodically receives threats at its call center in South Burlington from someone upset at one of the company’s clients.

Resolution employees were evacuated shortly after the envelope and white powder were discovered Tuesday morning. Three workers who were in close proximity to the white substance were segregated from the rest of the workers until the field test on the powder was complete. Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said each of the three workers refused transport to the hospital.

Other businesses that share the building with Resolution were also evacuated. Morton said it was determined the other businesses were safely partitioned from the Resolution facility and had separate heating and ventilation systems. The employees at those businesses were eventually allowed to return to work.

A plethora of public safety workers reported to the scene, including representatives from Williston Fire and Rescue departments, Williston Police, St. Michael’s Rescue, the FBI, U.S. Postal Service inspectors, the Vermont State Police, the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team and Federal Protective Services.

Most public safety workers spent large stretches of time facing a side door to the Resolution warehouse and waiting for inspections of the powder to occur. Some were noticeably sunburned by the time the envelope and letter were removed from the building in a large plastic bag around 3 p.m.

Officials treated the threat seriously, but they seemed confident from the beginning the powder was not a threat. The same was true of the approximately 50 Resolution employees who were evacuated.

Some lounged like picnickers on the grass across the parking lot from the Resolution building, while others pressed up against a different warehouse to catch the narrow strip of shade it offered. A smaller group enjoyed a spirited game of Whiffle Ball in front of a truck delivery bay, occasionally hitting balls to the feet of the television news cameramen stationed nearby.

Around 1 p.m., an American Red Cross van arrived with cold water and juice. Moments later, a pizza deliveryman brought lunch.

Shubart said the incidents have caused obvious problems for Resolution’s operation, but noted that employees have handled the disruptions and potential threat well.

“They’ve really been great the whole time,” Shubart said.