Environmental groups sue over Portland tear gas use

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FILE - 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. Night after night in Portland, tear gas and other crowd control devices enveloped protesters and bystanders in aerosolized compounds that then settled on the ground and wound up washed into storm drains. Test samples from those storm drains have turned up heavy metals and chemicals at much higher levels than samples collected from control sites elsewhere. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Night after night in Portland, tear gas and other crowd control devices have enveloped protesters and bystanders in airborne chemicals that settle on the ground, later to be washed into storm drains.

Amid allegations that human health and the environment are suffering the consequences, five environmental groups represented by the ACLU of Oregon and others sued the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday. The federal lawsuit alleges the U.S. government violated federal environmental law by deploying “an unprecedented amount of dangerous chemical weapons” without assessing their environmental impacts beforehand, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from federal authorities.

With the city experiencing some of the most sustained Black Lives Matter protests in the country, efforts by local officials and researchers are underway to determine whether, and how, people and the environment are being affected.

Cyanide and heavy metals such as chromium and zinc were found by Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services at much higher levels in stormwater catch basins alongside a protest site than elsewhere in the city, the bureau said in a report last month.

City officials said most contaminant levels in stormwater taken from a collection point 700 feet from the Willamette River, which bisects Portland, were lower than samples from a protest site several blocks further from the waterway.

“While pollutant levels that enter the Willamette River are thankfully low, the city is concerned about any and all additional pollution loads,” Environmental Services Director Mike Jordan said in September.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality noted that “the repeated deployment of tear gas in downtown Portland has led to elevated levels of certain contaminants” in stormwater drains. But spokeswoman Susan Mills said the concentrations found in stormwater catch basins “are not likely high enough to cause immediate impacts to the environment.”