The Teflon Don and the Tale of the Missing Sewage
Doesn’t a "Trump Sewage Scandal" have an obvious ring to it? Like Ben & Jerry’s, or Rocky and Bullwinkle, Trump and sewage just sound like they go together. Which is why the Daily Beast’s latest report on a little-known incident involving mega-developer Trump, millions of gallons of raw Manhattan sewage, some paid-off city officials, and the Hudson River sounds like a story that almost writes itself.
Here’s a brief rundown.
It was 1974 and Trump had just got his grubby little paws on the old Penn Central railyards on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Running 13 blocks along the Hudson River, the plot was just one of Trump’s many prophesied golden geese that would turn out to be more of a painted rubber chicken. In this instance, Trump had planned a tallest-ever 154-story skyscraper to be used both for residential housing and new television studios for NBC. Trump planned to call the studios Television City. (If only he was as good at following through on his ideas as coming up with names for them.)
At least a decade would pass before Trump began acting on his plans. In that time, Ruth Messinger became the Manhattan borough president, and the two were soon embroiled — as are most who cross Trump’s half-baked plans — in a bitter feud.
The disagreement was quite simple. Trump wanted his skyscraper and Messinger wanted to know what he planned to do with the all the sewage it would generate. Given that the city’s existing treatment plant for the Upper West Side area was already functioning above its capacity and Trump’s development was estimated to generate an extra 5 million gallons per day, this seemed a rather insurmountable problem. But then, that’s assuming you’re dealing with someone with even an iota of civic consciousness.
Fast forward to 1992, and Ruth Messinger had now taken her case to the city’s environmental commissioner. In a letter, Messinger urged the commissioner to hold off on approving the project “unless there is sustainable, reliable, and certain commitment to mitigate the anticipated sewage flows.” She would later testify that “there is no justification” for any claims that the city’s existing sewage plant could handle Trump’s new development.
Seems pretty airtight, right? But then something miraculous happened. The city’s weekly sewage flow reports suddenly showed 24 million fewer gallons of sewage coming from the Upper West Side. This was of course good news for Trump’s development, which could now easily be accommodated by the sewage plant’s capacity. And just like that, at the very moment Trump seemed most stumped, he managed to pull a rabbit from his hat like the Gregory House of skullduggery.
So, how did he do it?
Rich Herschlag, chief borough engineer at the time, who first noticed the strange dip in the sewage flow reports, decided to find out. “It was as if 150,000 Manhattanites just vanished,” Herschlag told David Cay Johnston of the Daily Beast.
Herschlag hit a number of dead ends and eventually sought assistance from the United States attorney for Manhattan, Mary Jo White, who launched her own investigation into the matter.
Another few years would pass before the real story broke. By now it was 1995, Herschlag was out of a job and the Trump project was well underway. It was also the year that, in Johnston’s term, “the best reporter in New York City, Wayne Barrett” wrote an article for the Village Voice titled “Ruth and Donald’s Artful Deal."
It’s really worth reading the whole story. In short, Trump had managed to lobby/bribe a number of city officials including, yes, allegedly Messinger (who was running for higher office at the time), into supporting his project in spite of the rather obvious implications it held for the city’s sewage. Even U.S. attorney White eventually dropped her inquiry and has avoided ever addressing the issue, including as Johnston notes, “whether any instruction flowed down to her from the Bill Clinton White House, which at the time Trump courted and publicly supported.”
Further, according to Johnston, here’s what Herschlag eventually came to discover about the mysterious missing sewage:
It may be the raw sewage was simply diverted into the Hudson River, but Herschlag believes another answer is highly likely. He learned that there are two independent sets of sewage flow data. One is from the collector pipes, the other at the entry to the treatment plant. Herschlag believes someone tampered with the plant intake meter, but neglected to fudge the collector-pipe meters so their numbers would match, either out of hubris—what are the odds someone would compare the two?—or laziness.
Trump ended up selling most of his interests in the plot to some Hong Kong investors in 1997. By then he was able to turn a tidy profit, as the land had already been approved by the city for development.
Throughout the Trump campaign, we’ve been assured of one thing: as president, Teflon Don’s going to make the country “great” again. Great is a relative term. This incident is just one of many that demonstrates exactly what Trump means by great. Great for his business, not so great for humans.