Does Trump know how many minutes are in a day? Engineers for his Chicago tower botched the math for a decade, AG says

  • Trump Tower uses millions of gallons of Chicago River water a day to heat and cool its 98 floors.

  • Since its 2009 opening, impact data has been missing or based on 'gobbledygook' math, officials say.

  • Trump's engineers now say they're "not yet able, as of today, to confirm the accuracy" of their data.

Since opening in 2009, Trump International Hotel & Tower, Donald Trump's massive glass skyscraper in Chicago, has relied on the city's river to heat and cool its 98 floors.

Every day, millions of gallons of river water are pulled into the building and released back as heated effluent in a ceaseless, continual loop.

But in a court filing last week, the Illinois attorney general says Trump has been systematically lowballing how much water the tower pulls in and discharges, significantly minimizing the tower's use of water, and, by extension, how many hundreds of thousands of fish, fish larvae and eggs are killed each year.

For a full decade, officials say, a simple math error has skewed Trump Tower's monthly reports to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency downward, so that the building only reported 65 percent of its river-water use.

Here's the math error: Trump's meters measure the river water circulating through the building in gallons per minute.

But in converting gallons per minute into gallons per day, which is the measure that the state requires, Trump engineers have been multiplying the per-minute volume by 1,000, the AG alleges. Trouble is, there are 1,440 minutes in a day, not 1,000.

Chicago river and skyline
Chicago is known for its Riverwalk, and Trump Tower has its own entrance to the promenade.Mlenny/Getty Images

It's "gobbledygook," the state's expert ecologist, who discovered the apparent discrepancy earlier this year, said in a May deposition when asked what he thought of Trump Tower's flow-rate calculations.

An excerpt from the May deposition of an ecology expert for the Illinois attorney general.
An excerpt from the May deposition of an ecology expert for the Illinois attorney general.Illinois attorney general's office/Insider

The building's management, 401 N. Wabash Venture – an LLC owned by the Trump Organization, in turn owned by Trump – is now backing off the accuracy of a decade's worth of math.

Tower management has retained two engineering firms to do a "lengthy" audit of its monthly reporting, Trump's lawyers told the state EPA in an August 14 letter included with the AG's latest court filing.

"401 is not yet able, as of today, to confirm the accuracy of past reports," the letter said.

This excerpt from an August 14, 2023 letter from Trump engineers addressing the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's concerns that Trump International Hotel & Tower has miscalculated a decade's worth of data on its intake and discharge of Chicago River water.
An excerpt from a letter from Trump engineers addressing the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's concerns that Trump International Hotel & Tower has miscalculated a decade's worth of data on its intake and discharge of Chicago River water.Illinois Attorney General's Office/Insider

The Illinois EPA responded to the apparent discrepancy by issuing Trump Tower a violation notice on August 31. The notice cites the tower's "failure to comply with monitoring, sampling, and reporting requirements" from February 2013 until the present.

"They don't know how to read their own meter," Albert Ettinger, an attorney for the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chicago River, told Insider. The two groups are parties to the state's ongoing, 2018 environmental lawsuit against the tower, Trump's tallest building worldwide.

A pattern of regulation defiance

State Attorney General Kwame Raoul's latest filing seeks to update the lawsuit to reflect what they're calling Trump's "significant" underreporting of Chicago River use; a hearing on that request is set for Tuesday in Chicago.

The discrepancy is just the latest example in a long history of flouting state and federal environmental regulations, Illinois officials allege in their lawsuit and five years of subsequent court filings.

Trump Tower is one of a dozen riverfront properties in Chicago to use an antiquated, so-called "once-through" water-intake system. It has the capacity to circulate 21.6 million gallons of river water through its building each day, more than any other high-rise in the city.

But when construction began in 2005, on the site of the old Chicago Sun-Times plant, the tower never applied for the required permit to run the system, officials say. It's called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, as heated water is considered a pollutant under the federal Clean Water Act.

Instead, the building continued to run its system for the next eight years as if no oversight whatsoever was required, operating with no permit, no environmental impact study, inadequate screening and no monthly reporting of flow data, officials allege.

Trump Organization lawyers have resisted changing how Trump's Chicago tower heats and cools.Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Not the first time their math has been in question

"Trump didn't apply for a permit at all" said Ettinger. "And it wasn't until 2012 that they got caught." Trump was fined $46,000 for the offense.

In 2013, the tower finally got its NPDES permit and began reporting that it was discharging only around 13,600 gallons of heated water a day.

After about a year, though, tower officials admitted they were misplacing a not-insignificant decimal point. They were reporting every 1,000 gallons of river-water discharge to the state as if it were a single gallon, state officials say.

"I don't think math is their strong suit," quipped Ettinger, who said the Sierra Club and Friends of Chicago River are on the brink of filing their own joint lawsuit against Trump Tower.

"They looked at their meter and thought each blip on the meter was a gallon and instead it was 1,000 gallons," he said.

The Chicago skyline at night, showing Trump International Hotel & Tower.
The Chicago skyline at night, showing Trump International Hotel & Tower.AP/Nam Y. Huh

Trump Tower fixed its decimal-point problem and in 2014 began operating under a revised permit. But in July, 2018, the Chicago Tribune revealed ongoing alleged violations, including a failure to ever do an environmental impact study or document what they were doing to prevent fish, invertebrates, larvae and eggs from being pulling into the system.

The attorney general's lawsuit was filed the next month. It seeks fines that could total $12 million, money which Trump, and not his insurers, would be directly responsible for paying, a recent appellate decision found.

The state's lawsuit also demands that Trump immediately improve the cooling system so that it is less deadly to aquatic life.

"It's just a matter of them doing what every other responsible building on the river is doing," said Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin.

That means installing a cylinder of screening around each of the tower's two giant intake pipes, to minimize the fish and invertebrate life being trapped against the pipes' grating or sucked into the building, Darin said.

Donald Trump outside Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower, as it was under construction in 2007.
Donald Trump outside Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower, as it was under construction.Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Trump has countered in court filings that the building is invested in the health of the river, and has been complying with all reporting and monitoring requirements.

"We are actively working with IEPA to renew our permit," said Alan Garten, the Trump Organization's executive vice president and chief legal officer. "While this process is ongoing we are confident that our building systems fully comply with all applicable regulations and there is no environmental harm."

Trump rejects the state's demand that he surround his two intake pipes with the cylindrical screens that are standard for these water-intake systems.

The so-called "wedge wire" used in this screening is fine enough to sieve out almost all small invertebrates, larvae, and eggs. The setup would include blasts of air, at intervals, that clean the screens and free larger fish trapped against them. It would cost Trump between $1.5 million and $2 million to install.

Trump, in his own court filings, has protested that the cost is prohibitive, that the loss of aquatic life, as is, is minimal, and that he is grandfathered out of any special screening requirement because he incorporated the Sun-Times' old intake piping into his far larger system.

Those, at least, are his main challenges. His experts have also claimed that the bursts of air could capsize small boats, something state experts say could be averted by posting warning signs.

"This is like standard practice for operating a skyscraper," Darin said of the screening and accurate monitoring the state is asking for.

"And Trump International's failure to do it is just an example of their apparent disregard for the environment and their responsibility to operate the building in a lawful manner."

The impact on the river

As a result of the 2018 lawsuit, a state court quickly ordered that the tower undertake the environmental study that should have happened a decade prior.

Among other findings, Trump's experts estimated that 323,000 individual fish, fish eggs and larvae were "impinged," or drawn into, the tower's water-intake system in all of 2019.

But that number, while "appreciable," is based on insufficient sampling, and on water-intake volumes that have consistently been underreported by 35 percent – that so-called "gobbledygook math," state officials now say.

"I don't think they're doing it fraudulently" Ettinger, the attorney for the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chicago River, says of Trump Tower's troubled relationship with state regulators and basic arithmetic.

"I just think legal compliance is not a big part of their business," he said. " And I think they don't really care so long was they don't get caught."

"Frankly, it's gobbledygook"

Ecologist and consultant Peter Alan Henderson has studied so-called "once-through" cooling systems like Trump Tower's for 40 years.

In March, the state detailed what Henderson called Trump Tower's "unreasonable" lapses in inspecting and maintaining its system.

In one instance Henderson noted, a grill he called "integral" to keeping marine life out of Trump's system fell into one of the intake chambers. It was not re-installed for at least six years.

Donald Trump and his three eldest children, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump, address the press outside Trump International Hotel & Tower in 2007.
Donald Trump and his three eldest children, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump, outside Trump International Hotel & Tower in 2007.Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

It was Henderson who told Trump's lawyers "frankly, it's gobbledygook" when asked his opinion on Trump Tower expert Christopher Wiggins' flow-rate math – a calculation involving "pulses" per thousand gallons that he'd never seen used before.

Henderson doubled down when Trump's lawyer, John Arranz, asked, "And your testimony, as you sit here today, and your opinion still is – I think you describe it as hooey?"

"No," Henderson answered. "I described what Mr. Wiggins says as gobbledygook."

This file photo shows the 98-story, Trump International Hotel & Tower with the Chicago River in the foreground.
Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago has used "gobbledygook" math to lowball its impact on the Chicago River, state officials and environmentalists say in court papers.Kiichiro Sato/AP

A half-century since the passing of the federal Clean Water Act, there are now nearly 80 species of fish swimming in the Chicago River, and higher numbers of individual fish than ever before, said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

"Blue gill are now common, a bunch of different kinds of sunfish, large- and small-mouth bass, channel catfish," Frisbie said, when asked recently about the kinds of fish that swim past Trump Tower.

Kayakers paddle in the tower's shadow, and people fish on the opposite bank, along the city's Riverwalk, though there are public health advisories on how much can safely be eaten.

Frisbie credits tougher regulation, better sewerage-capture technology, and the city's investment in stocking the river with fish and in installing floating wetlands, limnetic curtains, and other habitat, much of it directly across from Trump Tower.

"We're finding larvae for the state-endangered banded killifish, which shows there's enough habitat to support reproduction," she said.

"But Trump is killing fish at the same time that everybody else is investing in them," she added, "and he's alone among the buildings that do this and are responsible."

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