Environmental Law

The goal of environmental laws is to protect the environment and natural resources such as air, water, and endangered species. The laws largely target corporations to reduce pollution and other harm to the environment and human health.

What is Environmental Law?

The term environmental law refers to a set of laws and rules that aim to protect the natural environment and its resources. These laws include several important federal laws as well as state and even local laws. Much of the focus of environmental law is the regulation of businesses that could potentially harm the environment.[1]

Which Laws Protect the Environment?

The most important and far-reaching environmental laws are federal laws that fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Several important laws cover a wide range of resources and situations across the country:

The Clean Air Act

Passed in 1970, the Clean Air Act regulates emissions of substances that pollute the air. Amendments to the law in 1990 introduced new challenges, such as acid rain and ozone depletion. The EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards sets acceptable emission levels for pollutants.

The Clean Water Act

Passed in 1977, this law prohibits the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters in the U.S., except where the EPA has awarded permits. Amendments have updated the law to include new toxic substances and to give citizens the right to file suit against pollutants.

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)

FIFRA allows the EPA to prohibit or limit the sale of these hazardous products. The EPA can stop the sale in an emergency if threatened or endangered wildlife will be impacted. Pesticide users, such as farmers, must pass certification exams to use these products.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

This law, from 1974, gives the EPA the authority to set standards for drinking water, including aboveground and underground water sources. The EPA enforces the law along with state agencies.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

NEPA is one of the oldest federal environmental laws. Passed in 1969, it requires the federal government to research the impact on the environment before taking major actions, like construction projects. The law mandates environmental assessment reports and impact statements for any such major federal action.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

Passed in 1976, TSCA requires testing and screening of chemicals before they get to the market where consumers come into contact with them. It also allows the government to track hazardous chemicals and sets procedures for cleanup of spills.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)

CERCLA passed in 1980 to manage abandoned hazardous waste sites. The law created a Superfund and gave the EPS the power to track down the responsible parties and force them to clean the sites. The EPA can take over the cleanup if those parties cannot be found.

The Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) is part of an amendment to Superfund laws that help communities affected by polluted sites. States must maintain a commission to respond to environmental emergencies that impact public health.

The Endangered Species Act

This law protects and attempts to increase the populations of endangered animals and plants and their habitats. Under this law, individuals may petition to halt activities that threaten endangered species and habitats.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act

This law created OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA regulates safe workplaces, which often overlaps with environmental concerns such as clean air and clean water on job sites and the use of hazardous substances.

The Pollution Prevention Act

Passed in 1990, this law regulates the production and use of raw materials in industries that may cause pollution. It focuses on reducing pollution at the source. This includes recycling initiatives.

Who Enforces Environmental Laws?

The main agency responsible for enforcing environmental laws is the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created by the federal government in 1970. This was a time when some of the first important environmental laws were passed. Other agencies that handle environmental concerns and violations include:[2]

  • State agencies. Each state has an environmental agency similar to the EPA. State agencies are often responsible for environmental concerns at the local level.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA handles workplace safety concerns related to the environment, such as indoor pollution.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). FWS handles violations of the Endangered Species Act, while the EPA enforces pesticide use that may harm endangered wildlife.
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers handles permits for using wetlands, but the EPA also reviews applications.
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The EPA and FDA work together to enforce food safety with respect to pesticide, fungicide, and rodenticide use.
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC ensures safety in consumer products by regulating and enforcing pollutants and toxic substances in them.
  • Department of Energy. The U.S. Department of Energy manages nuclear waste and potential pollution.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice describes efforts to ensure all people, regardless of age, race, income, and other factors, are fairly represented in environmental policies. The EPA has initiatives for environmental justice to ensure that all people receive the same protection from environmental health hazards and equal access to making decisions about environmental policies.[3]

Some communities, often poorer and minority-dominated, are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and resulting health problems. Environmental justice, sometimes in the form of lawsuits, seeks to find solutions to the environmental and health problems in these communities.[3]

Environmental law is an important area of the law that affects everyone. If you have an issue related to pollution, water, environmental health hazards, or similar problems, contact an environmental lawyer to determine what to do next.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Environmental Law.
    Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/environmental_law
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, August 3). Does EPA Handle All Environmental Concerns?
    Retrieved from: https://usepa.servicenowservices.com/ecss?id=kb_article_view&sys_id=5d9917ea1b799c1013bdb913cc4bcb4a
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, December 7). Environmental Justice.
    Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice