Last Friday (the 13th) an irate citizen called Washington long distance to demand to know where the U.S. government stands on volcanos. Specifically, he was ticked off by the eruption the night before of Mount St. Helens.
The volcanic explosion -- third in a month's time -- blew an ash cloud 10 miles into the air. It covered portions of Washington state and Oregon with soot and ash. What about it, the man asked?
The HGO (high government official) who took the telephone call knew, more or less, what was coming. It had been that sort of a week!
The citizen-caller said he knew Uncle Sam was indirectly behind the Mount St. Helens' explosion. He linked it to the decision to cut off hot water in restrooms in federal buildings here.
Any fool could see what happened, the caller said: by cutting off its hot water taps, the government was no longer draining heat from Mount St. Helens. The result was a buildup of molten rock material and boom!
At that point, the HGO realized he had two options: he could explain that the hot water cutoff was not scheduled to begin until the next day, Saturday the 14th. That plus other scientific talk might convince the man his federally induced buildup theory was wrong. He could also have explained that Mount St. Helens has done this before the government even had hot water taps in its restrooms, indeed, even before the government had indoor plumbing. He could have done all that. Or . . .
Use option two. The make-a-clean-breast-of-it option. To confess that, yes the government had been stupid. That yes, the hot water cutoff probably caused the eruption. That now that-you-brought-this-to-our-attention we will rescind the hot water cutoff, and the volcano would go back to sleep.
Naturally, the HGO chose option two. The irate caller calmed down, thanked the HGO for his consideration, for being man enough to admit a mistake.
One can't really blame the HGO for taking the clean-breast option two. It had been a rough week.
Since the planned hot water cutoff became public government officials have been taking heat, from the public and the media. People wanted to know what was happening. And why?
Since the first report this column has gotten lots of calls and letters. They comment either on the wisdom/stupidity of the energy plan itself, or the wisdom/stupidity of a grown man making a living reporting such stuff.
Be that as it may, the policy is in effect. It covers 126,000 workers in federally owned buildings here and the government says it will save more than 10,000 barrels of oil a year.
As with every major federal policy change this one has spawned charges of favoritism and sinister motives, and its own set rumors. Some we have heard and been able to run down:
That the exotic tropical fish in the National Aquarium are dying like flies because cold water is being pumped into their tanks. The aquarium has 250 species of fish and is run by the Interior Department out of the Commerce Department basement.
The fish story is false, say aquarium tenders. There has been no water change for them. They are doing as well as tropical fish in the tanks in the basement of the Commerce Department could be expected to do.
That joggers, bikers and others are being favored over nonjoggers and nonbikers.
True, and false, according to the government. Hot water for showers in government buildings will not be cut off. Nor will hot water to cafeterias, health rooms, wash-up areas in print shops and motor pools. "The government has encouraged people to bike to work," an official said, and jogging is part of some agency health programs. Anybody with access to a shower will continue to have hot water.
That VIPs are exempt from the hot-water cutoff.
True, if they have showers in their offices, which many do.
That costly, time-consuming plumbing changes will have to be made to cut off hot water in areas where restroom faucets are linked to cafeterias and health units.
False, says Uncle Sam. In places where hot water to restrooms cannot be shut off with normal switches, the handles will be removed from the "hot" side of the hot and cold faucets.
That the cutoff violates federal health and safety rules.
Wrong again, says Uncle. As long as hot water is supplied to cafeterias, health units and shower areas, the restroom cutoff is legal.