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Coalition says Homeland Security defied federal environmental laws with its use of chemical weapons on protesters

PMG FILE PHOTO - Federal agents standoff with protesters on Main and 4th during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. A new lawsit alleges the repeated use of weapons like tear gas, pepper spray and smoke grenades violates environmental laws.A new lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and its acting secretary, Chad Wolf, alleges the federal agency violated environmental law with its use of chemical riot control agents.

The legal complaint filed Tuesday, Oct. 20, in Oregon District Court takes issue with the repeated use of tear gas, pepper spray and smoke grenades during protests, noting the environmental and human health impacts are unknown and unmonitored.

The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of environmental justice and public health organizations including Neighbors for Clean Air, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Cascadia Wildlands, 350PDX and Willamette Riverkeeper, with the backing of attorneys from the ACLU of Oregon, Cascadia Wildlands, Willamette Riverkeeper and the law firm Markowitz Herbold.

Plaintiffs allege the federal government failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement be prepared before proceeding with any operation that could substantially affect human or environmental health, including the repeated dispersal of less lethal chemical weapons.

"In short, NEPA required Defendants to consider the potentially severe environmental and human health impacts of Operation Diligent Valor, but they did not do so. And they continue to abdicate that responsibility to Plaintiffs and the public," the complaint states.

In early July, federal agents were dispatched to Portland by President Trump in a quasi-military operation the White House deemed "Operation Diligent Valor." The agents were sent after more than a month of Black Lives Matter protests that were sometimes accompanied by rioting. The public outcry and demonstrations began May 29 following the separate police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

The arrival of federal agents on Portland streets was marked by repeated use of less lethal weapons — most of them chemical agents — that plaintiffs say were deployed with little regard for health and safety impacts, and without the proper environmental oversight.

"Sometimes there was no escape route for people to get away from the chemical clouds," Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue.

The case seeks "to ensure that the federal government informs the public about environmental and human health impacts of Operation Diligent Valor as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and related rules." That has led to chemical runoff into Portland's parks, streets, businesses and vegetation, the lawsuit asserts.

"The manner and volume of tear gas and other munitions deployed ... has been so excessive and substantial 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 complaint states.

The lawsuit was filed the same day Pamplin Media Group reported little environmental monitoring has been done to gauge the potential health impacts of the various chemical munitions being used by both local and federal police. Concerns over the use of such weapons has grown, after researchers and protesters noted toxic military grade smoke grenades were among the weapons being used.

"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. Everyone has a right to know the impacts of the toxic chemicals we're being subjected to by our government," Indi Namkoong, coalition manager with 350PDX, stated in a news release.

The legal challenge is just the latest in a slew of litigation hurled at Homeland Security since Operation Diligent Valor was launched.

The federal government has been named in multiple legal challenges alleging civil rights abuses and unconstitutional policing tactics by federal police during protests in Portland.

"Environmental justice is racial justice. We all have a right to a safe and healthy community. Environmental hazards and police violence disproportionately deny that right to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color," Kelly Simon, interim legal director for the Oregon ACLU stated. "The large volumes of tear gas and other chemical weapons that federal officers recklessly and thoughtlessly unleashed in Portland is yet more evidence of the Trump administration's racist disregard for public health and a safe living environment. So we will see them in court, again."

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