Portland Environmental Groups Sue the Department of Homeland Security for Polluting the Willamette River With Chemicals Deployed During Protests

The groups are asking the court to prohibit DHS from deploying chemical munitions until it performs an analysis of environmental impacts.

Silent dance party along the Eastbank Esplanade in October 2020. (Brian Burk)

Five environmental and public health advocacy groups sued the Department of Homeland Security and its acting secretary Chad Wolf in federal court on Oct. 20, alleging that federal officers have polluted Portland and the Willamette River by deploying chemical agents, including tear gas, during protests.

The five environmental groups allege DHS failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when federal agents deployed chemicals on protesters.

The lawsuit specifically points to Operation Diligent Valor, which is what DHS named its operation that included sending more than 100 federal agents to Portland in July. Court records say that federal agents have deployed tear gas and other chemical agents at Portland protests since as recently as Oct. 18, 2020.

"The manner and volume of tear gas and other munitions deployed in relation to Operation Diligent Valor in Portland has been so excessive and substantial," the lawsuit says, "that visible munitions residue and sediment have accumulated in and on Portland's streets, sidewalks, curbs, bioswales, stormwater system, buildings, and standing water, and have been transported and conveyed to the Willamette River banks and waters."

The plaintiffs include Neighbors for Clean Air, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Cascadia Wildlands, 350PDX and Willamette Riverkeeper.

"Protesters are not pests and the prolonged use of pesticides and similar chemicals to disperse a crowd, without knowing the consequences, is unacceptable," said Ashley Chesser, executive director of Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. "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. We want to ensure no other city shares Portland's pain."

Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The plaintiffs argue that DHS has failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires DHS to prepare an environmental assessment and an environmental impact statement to assess the impacts of proposed actions that "significantly affect the quality of the human environment," the lawsuit says.

"For unknown or potentially significant impacts to the human environment,
Defendants were obligated to prepare at least an EA for Operation Diligent Valor, but did not do so," the lawsuit says. "Without observance of mandatory NEPA procedures, Defendants' Operation Diligent Valor, including its deployment of tear gas and other munitions, is arbitrary, capricious, not in accordance with law, and without observance of procedures required by law."

The plaintiffs also allege that, by deploying chemical agents at protests since July,  DHS agents subjected the public, as well as wildlife, to health hazards including cancer, organ damage, breathing difficulties and serious eye damage.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order that would prevent DHS from deploying tear gas and other chemical agents until the department conducts a thorough analysis of those chemicals' impact on the environment and public health. They are also asking the court to declare that DHS violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

"The price of justice shouldn't be further harm to public health and to the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are already out here fighting for their lives," said Indi Namkoong, the coalition manager with 350PDX. "Everyone has a right to know the impacts of the toxic chemicals we're being subjected to by our government."

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