Five environmental and human rights groups in Oregon are suing the Department of Homeland Security for its use of tear gas at recent anti-police brutality protests in Portland, saying the agency created “potentially grave health and environmental hazards.”
The suit was filed on Tuesday by the ACLU of Oregon, 350 Portland, Northwest Centre for Alternatives to Pesticide, Willamette Riverkeeper, Cascadia Wildlands, and Neighbours for Clean Air. As defendants, it names the Department of Homeland Security and its acting head Chad Wolf.
The respiratory impacts of tear gas — which let’s not forget is a chemical weapon — have been well-documented and raised concerns during the pandemic. But the new suit focuses on the lesser-known impacts the excessive tear gas use in Portland is having on the natural environment.
The lawsuit says that officials use of the weapon in Portland has been “so excessive and substantial that visible munitions residue and sediment have accumulated in and on Portland’s streets, footpaths, curbs, bioswales, stormwater system, buildings, [and] standing water.” It’s also seeped into the Willamette River, which people use for fishing and swimming, and which sustains local ecosystems. The groups allege using it violated the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law.
A September study study by Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services found higher concentrations of cyanide, chromium, and zinc in stormwater catch basins at key protest sites compared to other sites further from the area. The resulting “aquatic toxicity,” the suit says, puts people and animals — including threatened and endangered fish populations — at risk. That includes salmon that run up the Willamette that the city has been working to protect and restore even before the the Department of Homeland Security unleashed waves of tear gas over the city.
Scientists also fear tear gas can contaminate nearby groundwater and agriculture and sicken local wildlife when it’s deployed, pointing to other impacts that may still need to be documented. In a separate move in August, four members of of Oregon’s Congressional delegation wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to open an investigation into just that.
The new lawsuit is asking the courts to put a halt to tear gas use. In a press release, representatives from 350 Portland said they decided to get involved in the case not only to help protect environmental health, but also to help protect the right to safely protest racist injustices like police brutality and fossil fuel extraction, which also disproportionately pollutes neighbourhoods of colour.
“I’ve been on the ground facing tear gas and police brutality for months because racial justice and climate justice are faces of the same struggle for a just and livable future, one that as a young person of colour I expect to be in all my life,” 350 Portland coalition manager Indi Namkoong said. “Everyone has a right to know the impacts of the toxic chemicals we’re being subjected to by our government.”