Several environmental nonprofit organizations brought a lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Wednesday, alleging the agency broke environmental laws by suppressing protests in Portland, Oregon with tear gas and other chemical munitions without first measuring the chemicals’ impacts on human health and the environment.
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, along with five other environmental nonprofits and the Oregon ACLU, filed a suit accusing DHS of violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in federal court in Portland. The groups accuse the DHS of deploying so much tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters, there is now a buildup of toxic chemicals on Portland’s streets and the Willamette River.
Following this summer’s deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “thousands of people have gathered nearly every night in Portland to mourn the loss of Black lives, demand an end to racist and brutal policing practices, and call for new visions of public safety that value Black lives.” The DHS, in response, planned to quell these Portland protests in a scheme called “Operation Diligent Valor.” According to the complaint, DHS “and their agents” have used tear gas and other munitions such as rubber blast balls, flashbangs, and baton strikes as recently as October 17-18.
The plaintiffs assert that “the weapons [DHS] and their agents used and are using for Operation Diligent Valor present potentially grave health and environmental hazards.” Not only can tear gas and other chemical munitions irritate eyes, but the suit also says they can cause breathing issues, permanent eye damage, asthma, and be fatal due to long-term exposure. It also says that the residue from the tear gas can flow into storm drains that end up in the Willamette River. The river and its ecosystem “provide habitat to many types of terrestrial, avian, and aquatic wildlife, and is a federally designated critical habitat for threatened salmonids and steelhead.”
NEPA requires agencies engaging in major federal actions to prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA), an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), to adhere to its own protocols, and to follow guidance from the President’s Council for Environmental Quality. The plaintiffs argue that Operation Diligent Valor is a “major federal action” that triggers NEPA’s requirements.
The suit alleges that DHS has not prepared an EA or an EIS and has not followed federal guidelines relating to the environment for Operation Diligent Valor. The groups assert that DHS failed to consider the potentially severe environmental and human health impacts of Operation Diligent Valor, despite its federal mandate to do so. The groups are suing for declaratory and injunctive relief under the Administrative Procedure Act, and “allege a violation of NEPA, its implementing regulations, and DHS policies.”