Environmental Law

Federal Acts That Protect Our Environment

Our environment - air, water, land and animals - are under constant attack from many factors, including itself, but mostly man. Global warming, vicious storms, oil and other toxic spills contribute to growing concerns about our future.

Since the early 1970's, Congress has passed several laws to protect the environment, and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce and oversee these laws.Many of the laws are enforced by injunctions, a court order that stops any activity that violates the law. Violators are subject to fines and criminal charges.

The following highlights some of the most important features of these environmental statutes.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

  • NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environment when making important decisions, like whether to build a highway or allow mining on federal land
  • Federal agencies must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to report how actions may affect the environment
  • NEPA set up the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the President about environmental issues
  • Most states have similar laws that require an environmental study prior to major state action

Clean Air Act

  • The Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970 to reduce air pollution across the country
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carries out the law
  • The Act sets limits on the levels of pollutants in the air nationwide
  • The EPA limits the amount of pollution put into the air by industries, like chemical plants and steel mills
  • Each state has a permit program that regulates air pollution from major sources, such as power plants
  • The Act sets federal limits on motor vehicle emissions. California is allowed to establish even tougher vehicles emission limits due to its severe air pollution problems

Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act)

  • The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) was first passed in 1948. It was amended as the Clean Water Act in 1982
  • The Act makes it illegal to put pollutants into rivers, lakes and streams without a permit
  • Permits are issued to municipalities and industries to regulate the amount of waste put into water
  • The FWPCA also contains provisions pertaining to spills of oil and other hazardous substances into waterways that can be traveled by boat

Wetlands Protection under the FWPCA

  • A wetland is an area soaked with water. Wetlands have special environmental value because they support unique plant and animal species
  • The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers use FWPCA provisions to protect sensitive wetland areas
  • A permit is required to dredge or put fill material into wetlands next to federal waters

Safe Drinking Water Act

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1972 to assure the safety of public drinking water
  • The EPA sets acceptable levels of physical, chemical, biological and radiological substances in public water systems
  • Public water supply systems must tell customers about any failure to meet EPA standards
  • States must act to protect wellheads, aquifers and underground wells from contamination

Toxic Substances Control Act

  • The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976
  • The Act gives the EPA power to gather information to determine if chemicals are toxic to human health and the environment
  • The EPA requires manufacturers to test new chemical substances
  • Businesses must report and keep records about toxic substances used in industry
  • The Act contains specific requirements for asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and radon gas


  • The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was passed in 1986 after a chemical leak killed 2,000 people in Bhopal, India
  • State and local governments must prepare emergency response plans for chemical emergencies and inform the public about activities involving hazardous chemicals

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act

  • The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act regulates the use of toxic substances used for pest control
  • All pesticides must be registered with EPA

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed in 1976, regulates the disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste, used oil and underground storage tanks
  • Hazardous material must be tracked from production through transportation, storage and disposal
  • Hazardous wastes may only be disposed of in a federally approved facility
  • Handlers and disposers of hazardous wastes are subject to strict reporting and operational requirements

CERCLA (Superfund)

  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), amended in 1986 by the Superfund Act (SARA), provides for the cleanup of sites polluted by toxic and hazardous wastes
  • CERCLA creates the environmental Superfund, which is used to finance governmental cleanup activities
  • The Act permits governments and private parties to sue anyone responsible for the generation, transportation or disposal of hazardous wastes

The Endangered Species Act

  • The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 to protect animals and plants from extinction
  • The US Secretary of the Interior has the authority to list species as endangered or threatened with extinction
  • The Act prohibits federal agencies from jeopardizing the continued existence of species listed as threatened or endangered
  • The Act also protects endangered or threatened species from development on private land

Substantial progress has been achieved in protecting the US natural environment since the 1970's. The EPA reports we now have cleaner air and drinking water. Industries must bear the financial cost of managing and cleaning up waste.

However, the gulf oil spill of 2010 and other environmental disasters make clear that improvement is still needed to better protect the nation's land, water and wildlife.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Where do I report or stop activity that threatens the environment?
  • How do I find out if my drinking water is contaminated?
  • Do I need a permit to own an underground storage tank for petroleum fuel?
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