Environmental groups sue over Portland tear gas use

The suit alleges the use violates the National Environmental Policy Act as the chemicals accumulate on streets and seep into surrounding waterways


In this July 28, 2020, file photo, federal officers deploy tear gas and crowd control munitions at demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — A coalition of environmental advocacy groups on Tuesday filed suit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, alleging federal officers’ use of tear gas, pepper spray and other chemical munitions is causing grave health and environmental hazards.

The suit alleges the use violates the National Environmental Policy Act as the chemicals accumulate on city streets and sidewalks and in bioswales that carry stormwater runoff, seeping into the Willamette River.

The groups contend the national law requires the federal agency to consider the environmental and human health impacts of its Operation Diligent Valor that brought additional federal officers to Portland to safeguard the downtown federal courthouse and other federal buildings, but that the agency hasn’t done so.

The suit also notes the federal officers’ use of a new contraption last weekend outside the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Building in South Portland -- a thermal fogger that dispersed tear gas or smoke toward people ordered to leave the property.

In addition, the suit alleges that the officers have fired tear gas and other chemical munition canisters that have expired, manufactured as far back as 2000.

[READ: Protest response: Key considerations to improve LE operations]

The plaintiffs are the nonprofits Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Willamette Riverkeeper, Cascadia Wildlands, Neighbors for Clean Air and 350PDX that works to address the causes of climate change. They filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Portland.

“Protesters are not pests and the prolonged use of pesticides and similar chemicals to disperse a crowd, without knowing the consequences, is unacceptable,” Ashley Chesser, executive director of Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, said in a statement. “We don’t have any idea what repeated exposure to tear gas does to human health or the environment. DHS had a legal duty to research this before they started gassing Portland, and they may have caused significant harm by failing to do so.”

The lawsuit is the latest in at least a dozen legal actions filed over the federal response to demonstrations in Portland in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost eight minutes.

Mayor Ted Wheeler in September barred Portland police from using tear gas to disperse protesters after a judge’s order had restricted its use by Portland police to only encounters when lives or public safety were at risk.

In late July, Oregon environmental regulators required the city to test stormwater around the federal courthouse and parts of downtown, citing the “unprecedented amount of tear gas” used by local and federal law enforcement agencies since May.

In September, the city tested three sets of samples on Aug. 6 from stormwater pipes in downtown Portland and found elevated levels of barium, copper, lead and zinc at the federal courthouse site, with levels of all four metals dropping before reaching the Willamette River. Additional sediment sampling at six storm drains also showed higher levels at the federal courthouse than at the control site outside the protest zone, according to the city.

The city also notified the federal General Services Administration, which runs the federal courthouse, that it was fining it $20,000 for blocking city access to a storm drain behind the fence erected around the courthouse. The city is still awaiting access to that storm drain, according to the suit.

(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)