The $41,000 Toilet: Wastebook Fact or Fiction?
Policy + Politics

The $41,000 Toilet: Wastebook Fact or Fiction?

Iva Hruzikova/The Fiscal Times

On the face of it, longtime deficit hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has offered another withering critique of wasteful spending with the recent release of his “Wastebook 2010” oversight report. He skewers 100 government projects and earmarks including an abandoned pink octagonal monkey house maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs, a National Science Foundation grant to study “why political candidates make vague statements,” and nearly $1 million for three zoos to flank their quarters with poetry quotes.

Coburn’s Wastebook is part of a time-honored practice of politicians mocking government spending, and it provides plenty of ammunition for Republicans’ efforts to cut back domestic spending this year by as much as $100 billion. Many of his examples are accurate in their portrayal, but others misrepresent or omit key details, according to people with knowledge of these specific projects. Coburn’s office contends that all of their characterizations of wasteful spending were right on the money.

To get to the bottom of these conflicting claims, The Fiscal Times examines a few of his blame targets. Here’s what we found:

Flushing Money Down the Drain?

In his report, Coburn criticizes Denali National Park for “spending $41,000” a piece to replace 36 toilets with “gold-plated, sweet-smelling…potties in the woods.”

“It’s more important to repair Medicare and Social Security than toilets in Alaska,” Coburn’s spokesman John Hart told The Fiscal Times. “We’re going bankrupt because we refuse to set priorities and make choices between toilet enhancement and entitlement reform.”

That may be so, but according to Denali spokeswoman Kris Fister, Coburn’s “little blurb didn’t really give the full picture,” and was partially incorrect. The project was necessary to bring the Teklanika campground rest facilities into compliance with the Alaska Department of Environmental Compliance regulations after testing found the 30-year-old chemical toilets were contributing to wastewater treatment plant problems and constantly malfunctioning. Moreover, the chemical toilet vendor informed the park that they would no longer manufacture replacement parts for the existing toilets after 2005.

The rest stop is located about 30 miles from the park entrance, in an area without running water and with the sub-arctic climate typical of the rest of the park. It hosts about 200,000 visitors each year on their way in and out of the 7,370 square-mile park, and is the main stop station.

The entire project did cost $1.5 million, as Coburn noted, but the $41,000 per toilet figure is grossly inflated, since the total project cost includes overhauling all of the facilities at the entire rest area, not just the toilets. Coburn calculated that figure by dividing the $1.5 billion project cost by 36 without factoring in the rest of the project, Fister said.

In reality, the 36 chemical toilets were replaced with 16 ventilated vault toilets (based on designs developed by the National Parks Service 20 years ago) which cost a mere $167 a piece, according to Fister. The remainder of the costs went to replacing the parking area, installing a roof, demolishing the old facility, constructing a deck and overhead weather shelter, installing concrete floors, doors and hardware, and the costs of getting workers and their materials out to this remote site, where they were housed to work on the project for most of this past summer, she said. As for the total cost, “unfortunately that’s the cost of doing business with Alaska,” Fister said.

The upgrade was desperately needed, Fister said. The old chemical toilets, which were replaced in August, were similar to the waterless toilets used on airplanes with chemical holding tanks. “Despite repeated pumping every day, the facilities smelled, the toilets often broke down, and people would be waiting in line for the few that did work that day,” she said. Coburn also does not mention the project’s projected cost savings. The park will save an estimated $30,000 per year in reduced pumping costs and $50,000 per year in maintenance and cleaning costs because of the new facilities, Fister said.

Flatulence on the Farm

One of Coburn’s more comical jabs is at a $700,000 Department of Agriculture grant to University of New Hampshire researchers to study “greenhouse gas emission from organic dairies, which are caused by cow burps.”

While livestock without question contributes to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (about 2.2 percent according to Penn State dairy nutrition expert Alexander Hristov) by expelling methane, the main focus of this study is not flatulence-induced emissions, as Coburn’s report suggests. The $700,000 grant was awarded to UNH researchers this fall to study nutrient cycling in traditional and organic dairy ecosystems in order to create a software tool to help farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer (or nitrogen) they need to purchase and use. In order to devise the software tool some of the work “will assess greenhouse gas emissions…to validate the biogeochemical model,” they create, but that is peripheral, said Ruth Varner, the projects’ lead researcher.

“Loss of nitrogen from the ecosystem through leaching to the groundwater or in runoff makes the farm less efficient and releases this nitrogen to the environment,” she said. “By understanding how different farming practices impact the cycling of nitrogen, a key nutrient, farmers can make more informed decisions about how to maximize efficiency.”

The research, which will be conducted through fall of 2013, is also meant to provide USDA with information about the sustainability and environmental performance of agricultural supply chains to help the agency “understand the impact of any land use, whether natural or human impacted, on our water, air and soil,” she said.

It may be a “sophisticated look at cow burps” but it’s still about cow burps, Hart said.

On the Road to an HIV Vaccine

Coburn’s “Wastebook 2010” chastises the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for spending $55,000 on HIV Vaccine Awareness Day in 2010 considering that no vaccine exists. “It would seem the best way to recognize and thank those working to develop a HIV vaccine is to ensure the funds being provided by taxpayers…are actually being used for promising research rather than reminding people of how important that research is,” Coburn wrote in his report.

But Coburn fails to mention that part of that funding goes toward educating people about participating in HIV vaccine trials “so that sufficient numbers of people from the demographics most affected by the epidemic enroll in these studies,” according to an NIAID spokesperson. “Without sufficient numbers and diversity of clinical trial volunteers, NIH cannot complete the clinical research necessary for HIV vaccine development.” Coburn also does not mention that HIV Vaccine Awareness Day seeks to update infected people and the public about the latest scientific developments in antiretroviral drugs, which can slow down the development of AIDS.

Specifically, the majority of the money was directed to regional programs meant to encourage people to enroll in HIV vaccine clinical trials, to educate them about the process, and how to support friends and family who are enrolled. In 2010, such programs were held in Rochester, N.Y., Atlanta, and Boston, among others. The funding also went towards HIV/AIDS health fairs and round table discussions around the country meant to educate the public about the disease, testing options, and related health issues, according to NIAID.

The funding is warranted considering that the U.S. government spent an estimated $13 billion caring for people infected with HIV in 2007, and likely more in the subsequent years, NIAID said.

But Coburn’s office dismisses the idea. “Every HIV vaccine trial has been a failure,” Hart said. The NIH’s promotion materials for awareness day are “enough to make a bureaucrat blush.”