‘Unprecedented’ use of tear gas against Portland protesters prompts state regulators to call for environmenta – OregonLive

‘Unprecedented’ use of tear gas against Portland protesters prompts state regulators to call for environmenta  OregonLive

Oregon environmental regulators are requiring the city of Portland 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.

The Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter Thursday to Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Quality outlining its expectations. The city must send a monitoring plan to state officials within the next three weeks describing how it will monitor for specific heavy metals and chemicals that regulators believe are likely associated with CS gas, a strong form of toxic tear gas used against protesters for months.

City officials said they are aware of the letter and are working in conjunction with the state to do more than just monitor for the roughly half dozen metals required by the state. Diane Dulken, a spokesperson for the sewer and stormwater agency, said Portland is working to “prevent the pollutants from getting into the Willamette River.” She said the agency “regularly” tests for contaminants at locations along the river but will now test specifically near the courthouse, two public parks and Justice Center due to the extensive tear gas used there.

But Portland also raised an alarm bell: It doesn’t know much about tear gas or its residue, and it said those materials are likely already in the sewer system. Dulken noted that tear gas residue is in the trees, on the ground and likely throughout the area near the courthouse and justice center, which has been the centerpiece of nightly protests for months.

“Maybe these materials aren’t hazardous, maybe they are,” Dulken said. “We’re researching that. There isn’t a lot of information.”

The letter is just one of many tear gas related developments wafting through political circles, from Salem to Portland to Washington DC.

It landed the same day that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler apologized for the city police bureau’s “indiscriminate” use of tear gas in late May or June during months of racial justice protests and demonstrations. Wheeler oversees both the Police and Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city’s’ sewer and stormwater system.

In Salem, lawmakers discussed a bill that would prevent law enforcement agencies across the state from using “chemical incapacitants” like tear gas. The legislation would create an exemption for a single less-noxious gas, pepper spray, under certain circumstances and with sufficient announcements.

And U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Karin Power, the Milwaukie legislator who chairs the state’s House Energy and Environment Committee, on Thursday sent a letter to state and federal environmental leaders asking a series of health and policy questions related to gases police use for crowd control.

“While we work to stop the use of these gases altogether,” they wrote in a letter to the heads of the state DEQ and federal Environmental Protection Agency, “we are also seeking greater transparency about what chemicals have been deployed to date against protesters in Portland, and potential impacts on human health, wildlife, aquatic life, and local air and water quality.”

The Democratic politicians said they want to know the number of tear gas cartridges fired, how many were beyond their expiration date and what agency will pay for associated cleanup. They demanded a response by Aug. 6.

Late Wednesday night, on their last night in charge of policing protests at the courthouse, federal law enforcement and border security officials again launched tear gas across a swath of city parks and streets surrounding the downtown Portland federal courthouse. Tear gas clouds stretched across the entirety of Lownsdale Square and enveloped broad sections of Southwest Third and Fourth avenues. Protesters wore gas masks, goggles, helmets and poured milk into the eyes of those in the thickest areas of tear gas clouds. The gas stings, burns and irritates exposed skin. OPB this week documented dozens of instances in which woman exposed to the gas subsequently had irregular menstrual cycles.

Harry Esteve, a spokesperson for the state environment agency, said the city will likely have to wait until it rains to get reliable test results. According to the National Weather Service, Portland’s last measurable rainfall, three-hundredths of an inch, occurred July 7.

The state is asking Portland to collect and analyze stormwater for chromium, hexavalent chromium, lead, zinc, copper, barium and perchlorate. Most of those substances are toxic to humans at even at extremely low levels.

“We’re taking a close look at the situation,” Esteve said.

Police use tear gas and stun grenades on a group of protesters in downtown Portland on Tuesday night, June 3. The group of several hundred marching through downtown Portland broke from a crowd of thousands that had gathered in Pioneer Square. Protests continued for a sixth night in Portland, demonstrating against the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis. Brooke Herbert / StaffBrooke Herbert/The Oregonian

Following the monitoring request, Portland must submit a report that includes comparisons to previous tests at the same locations. The state called for the monitoring under the stormwater permit it issued to the city.

Portland police have used tear gas on demonstrators for years, although never with the frequency that federal and local officers have deployed it this spring and summer.

Since July 24, the state fielded 160 official complaints about the gas, Esteve said, plus additional outreach through social media. Those complaints center on concerns for health and the environment.

Esteve said that CS gas, a form of which has been used on Portland streets for months, is “not considered a federal hazardous substance.”

He said DEQ won’t analyze the public health effects of recent tear gas apart from looking at its effects on stormwater runoff, which leads to the Willamette River, saying that “is not something that we regulate.” He said the potential public health impacts are a matter for the Oregon Health Authority to address.

“The thing about tear gas is it dissipates pretty quickly, so it’s not something that we would respond to like a spill or something like that,” Esteve said.

Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson with the Oregon Health Authority, cited the fact that CS gas is considered toxic by the Centers for Disease Control. Modie referred to federal documents, which indicate people exposed to the gas should “as quickly as possible” wash their skin with “large amounts of soap and water” if they are exposed. The CDC states that “long-lasting exposure” to riot control agents like tear gas in closed spaces could lead to blindness or “respiratory failure possibly resulting in death.”

Dulken, the city spokeswoman, said the agency received information that federal officers were hosing down the streets outside the federal courthouse, spraying the residue into storm drains. “That is not allowed,” she said, “but it was done.”

She said her agency is investigating how it can prevent the tear gas residue that’s already in the system from being flushed into the river when rain comes.

Dulken said it’s not unusual for the bureau to sample stormwater and test for five of the metals included in the state letter, but she said the bureau doesn’t test for hexavalent chromium or perchlorate. She did not have immediate information regarding how frequently the bureau samples in general, but said testing occurs more frequently during the rainy season.

On Friday, crews are expected to examine storm drains near the Justice Center. Dulken said crews will try to take advantage of the dry weather to find residue and clean it out.

That residue will likely flush into the sewers and Willamette River when the rain comes.

Portland, Dulken said, is in uncharted territory. No other city has had so much tear gas deployed over an extended period of time.

— Andrew Theen; atheen@oregonian.com; 503-294-4026; @andrewtheen

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