For much of the past 60 days, downtown Portland has been enveloped by clouds of tear gas used by federal and local police to disperse protesters and discourage people from gathering.
Recent public accounts describe a strong chemical odor lingering in Lownsdale Square hours after police release gas. Others have seen what appears to be tear gas residue sticking to the dirt and dust when they’ve made daylight returns to the area. And they’ve experienced the return of itchiness in their eyes and scratchiness in their throats from the previous night’s protests.
Some are worried about what the chemicals will do to the environment long after downtown protests end.
“Because of how they are cleaning the streets and when they come through with the trucks and they wash the street and brush it, where does all that water run? Into the sewer system. Where does that sewer system run to? I’m guessing into the [Willamette] River,” said a woman who identified herself as Vita. She was in the area early Thursday. She said she is a medical assistant who has been helping tend to protesters’s medical needs.
“All those chemicals, if it’s a daily occurrence for a long period of time, yeah, it can definitely hurt,” she said.
When asked about what all these chemicals are doing to the environment, state and city agencies say there’s nowhere to look to for answers, because no other U.S. city has ever been subjected to such a sustained barrage of tear gas.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services are working together to gather more information and research about what the potential environmental impacts of chronic tear gas deployment may be.
Environmental compliance manager Matt Criblez from the Portland agency said they are doing literature research right now and will be collecting samples from storm drains in the next couple of days.
“We’re really working with a stew of pollutants and we don’t know what that means yet,” Criblez said.
He said so far the dry weather has been helpful as it’s not moving chemicals farther out in the storm drains. BES officials do not think the chemicals have yet exited the storm drain or sewer systems.
For now, Criblez said in order to identify specific types of chemicals and tear gas used on protesters, they will require cooperation from both Portland police and federal agencies. So far, the Portland Police Bureau is working with the city’s environmental services staff to help them better identify what chemical compositions may be detected from the products used. Federal agencies have not cooperated and that information about the tear gas they’ve fired on protesters remains unknown.
Once Portland’s environmental bureau begins sampling it plans on sharing its findings with the Department of Environmental Quality.
“We will work really closely with DEQ on what the potential impacts are of deposition into the Willamette, but I think what we really need to understand first is what are the potential impacts to water quality,” Criblez said.
As for air quality, DEQ’s Susan Mills said the agency does not have any regulatory authority over the use of tear gas by law enforcement under the Clean Air Act. Mills also said the agency does not have any air quality monitors in the downtown Portland area and if it did, the monitors do not regulate the contaminants potentially used in tear gas.
For now, the DEQ is working with BES on putting together a plan for the BES to draw samples from the Willamette River after the next rain event to check for pollutants.
Oregon lawmakers are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality to investigate the public health risks created when tear gas and other chemicals are used repeatedly.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, whose district includes downtown Portland, and state Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, sent a letter Thursday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality with questions about the tear gas. The letter calls for more information on what kind of impact the gas could have on aquatic life and the city’s groundwater. The two lawmakers raised concerns about whether the tear gas residue could be washed directly into the Willamette River once the rain comes.
Blumenauer and Power also raised concerns about possible health effects on humans, citing an OPB report that dozens of protesters ranging in age from 17 to 43 said they believe the regular exposure to tear gas caused irregularities within their menstrual cycles.
“At times, gases have been deployed on peaceful protesters with little or no prior notice, resulting in exposure to unknown chemical agents,” the letter reads. “We are extremely concerned about the potential environmental and public health impacts of these gas discharges.”