The nightly fog of tear gas in downtown Portland has largely subsided, but city officials are concerned that the residue may yet linger on nearby storm drains.
City crews on Wednesday, Aug. 5, rushed to scour six drains near the federal courthouse and county justice center, the epicenter of the demonstrations, before an expected rainfall on Thursday. A seventh drain also must be cleaned but access is blocked by an iron fence walling off the federal courthouse.
"We're not sure if … rain will wash any of the tear gas into the river," said Environmental Services spokeswoman Diane Dulken. "We take care of the city's stormwater system, which of course has a big effect on the health of the Willamette River."
Crews wearing masks and respirators took sediment samples from the drains before sucking up potential contaminants using a noisy vacuum. The costs of the work are being tracked, but were not immediately known, Dulken said.
The cleanup work was not merely precautionary. The Oregonian earlier reported that the state Department of Environmental Quality required BES to monitor conditions, citing the "unprecedented amount of tear gas" used by local police and federal officers over 70-plus days of continuous protests.
A press release says the city will test for elevated levels of zinc, lead, copper and chromium — contaminants released by crowd-control agents and motor vehicles — as well as substances specifically linked to CS gas, including hexavalent chromium, perchlorate, barium and cyanide.
Dulken said another drain outside the area was also tested as a control sample.
Videos posted on social media on July 27 showed federal authorities power washing the pavement surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse, sending a white substance presumed to be soap into the drains.
2/2 Protecting river quality means protecting against pollutants. Storm drains are for rain only. Pressure washing with water is okay. With other substances - nope. Video: apparently illicit cleaning with soapy substance at SW 3rd and Main Street pic.twitter.com/exKZXKeFLl— BESPortland (@BESPortland) July 27, 2020
That's illegal, Dulken said, as cleaners are required to buffer storm drains to prevent run-off, especially as the pipes in that area lead directly to the Willamette River. But unlike Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who is fining the feds $48,000 a day over the courthouse security fence blocking a bike lane, the city Bureau of Environmental Services has not taken legal action.
"We are in communication with the General Services Administration," Dulken said. "We're not focused on enforcement right now — we're focused on pollution prevention."
Many women in Portland have reported adverse effects to their menstrual cycles they believe may be linked to repeated exposure to tear gas, OPB reported recently, and Kaiser Permanente has now embarked on a research study.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Karin Power sent a letter on July 30 demanding the Oregon DEQ and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigate the health risks posed by tear gas, saying they are "extremely concerned about the potential environmental and public health impacts of these gas discharges."
@repblumenauer and I are calling on EPA, DEQ, and others to investigate the public health and enviro risks of tear gas and other chemicals to people, wildlife, aquatic life, and local air and water quality. We don't know yet what has been deployed, but we aim to find out. #orpol https://t.co/ufR5nGm2nk— Karin Power (@karin_power) July 30, 2020
Last week, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to explain the negative impacts of tear gas on human health and physiology.
In an Aug. 5 letter to Attorney General William Barr and DHS Action Director Chad Wolf, Wyden said federal agents' use of "less-lethal" rounds and tear gas could affect residents' health.
"Residents of downtown Portland, including the houseless community, were exposed to these dangerous chemicals regardless of whether they took part in the protests," Wyden wrote. "This response would be disturbing under any circumstances but it is completely unacceptable in the middle of a global respiratory pandemic."
Wyden sought answers to several questions about the chemicals, including whether the agencies had "consulted with outside medical experts on the impact tear gas or riot control agents has on human physiology?"