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Document Friday: The GSA’s Exploding Toilet… Err, “Domestic Water System Incident.”

April 20, 2012

About to create a "Domestic Water System Incident."

Maybe the General Services Administration should have shifted some of its Pacific Rim events planning budget into its DC Regional Office plumbing budget.

Last September, Washington-area inboxes, gchats, and facebook walls went into the gutter sewer after a news article entitled “Exploding Toilet Sends Woman to Hospital” began making the rounds.  The explosion occurred at the GSA offices at 301 7th St. SW, and at least one woman was injured badly enough that she needed to go to the hospital.  I haven’t found an update on her status.  After the bad PR, the GSA sent out a press release, and the story eventually disappeared down the pipes .

Then someone sent a FOIA request for documents about the incident.  I found these documents and the request at Muckrock.com, so a very big h/t to them.  Go check out their site, they are doing some really cool work to make filing FOIA requests easy and more accessible for everyone.

Also, the back and forth between the requester Jason Smathers and the FOIA officer about processing the request for  “the terms ‘bathroom’ and/or ‘toilet’ as they relate to the ‘exploding toilet’ event that took place on or around September 26, 2011.” is pretty tootin’ good.  Smathers also has submitted an excellent appeal.

And GSA deserves credit for responding pretty quickly and being forthcoming about an embarrassing incident.  This is how the FOIA process is meant to work.  Nice job, GSA.

And without further adieu, here are the exploding toilet emails.  More background can be found at Muckrock.**

Hold it until we get to the next gas station.

Above is the original email warning to the GSA staff not to use the rest rooms.

...And not for the last time.

Unsurprisingly, news of the explosion leaked to the press.  There were lots of emails like this.  The subject of one was “I’m afraid to pee;” the subject of another was “who was this?”  This might be a useful time to remind government workers that emails from their work computers are considered public records, cannot be destroyed, and are certainly subject to  FOIA.

People on site told us the toilet "exploded."

And above is a fuller explanation of the incident that was not available to the press or public (or GSA employees?) at the time of the explosion.

Domestic Water Incident Summary.

And (mopping up) here is a draft of the pres release; notice the buro-speak for “exploding toilet” is “domestic water incident.”

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** Tangentially, as I was writing this, a friend reminded me that in 1971 the Weather Underground hid a bomb behind a toilet in the US capitol.  According to one account, “The switchboard operation in Washington D.C. was terrified by a caller speaking in a ‘low, hard’ voice.  ‘This building will blow up in thirty minutes,’ he told her. ‘You will get many calls like this, but this one is real.  Evacuate the building.  This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos’

…Half an hour later, the toilets went sky-high.  The explosion ruined the Congressional barber shop, overturned tables in a senators’ dining room and damaged an  expensive paining of George Washington.”

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