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Health officials concerned about rats at Occupy DC sites

January 11, 2012 |  9:56 am

Occupy DC has endured police patrols, the cold and scrutiny from California Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).

But now, there's a potentially intractable foe: rats.

Washington, D.C., health officials have raised concerns about the proliferation of rats at the two encampments.

"As in any metro urban area, with lots of foot traffic, there’s going to be an issue of rats,’’ Washington health department spokeswoman Najma Roberts said in an interview Wednesday. "Since the Occupy movement, we have seen an increase in rats in both locations.’’

The Washington health director told the Washington Examiner that it may be necessary to remove tents from the Occupy camps, if only temporarily, to eradicate the infestation.

Pete Perry, a 41-year-old Occupy DC participant, acknowledged that rats are a problem at McPherson Square, a federal park near the White House. "There was a team of us that went through this morning cleaning as best we could,’’ he said.

But the Washington, D.C., native added, "There have always been rats in downtown DC.’’

Occupy protesters have also take over nearby Freedom Plaza.

The parks are under the control of the National Park Service. But health officials have visited the sites to distribute education materials and advise protesters on how to keep conditions sanitary.

The rat problem comes as Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, this week asked the Interior Department to explain how it concluded that the occupation is considered a "24-hour vigil,’’ allowed under park rules rather than the prohibited camping.

When Issa raised questions in December about the encampment, an Interior Department spokesman said, "The National Park Service and U.S. Park Police are firmly committed to upholding Americans' 1st Amendment rights while also enforcing our nation's laws, guarding public safety, and protecting the resources with which we are entrusted."

Dissatisfied with the Interior Department’s response, Issa this week sent another letter asking for, among other things, explanations of the legal difference between a "24-hour vigil" and "camping," and when, if ever, the park service plans to remove the protestors from the park.

An Interior Department official said in a letter to Issa this week that park service personnel have "at all times maintained a continuous law enforcement presence and constant patrols at McPherson Square in order to protect the health and safety of park visitors and demonstrators and have taken necessary action to protect public health and safety."

In response to Issa’s concerns about the effect of the encampment on the $400,000 in recent improvements to McPherson Square, paid for with economic stimulus funds, the Interior Department noted that 1st Amendment activities "often come with a measure of wear and tear on our national parks," but noted that only $8,000 was used to re-sod the park with new grass. The remainder was spent on hardscape improvements that "have not, to our knowledge, been damaged over the course of the demonstration."


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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: A sign posted in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images