Since protection of the environment is a national (not to mention global) concern, the most important environmental laws can be found at the federal level. In this article, we'll summarize a number of key pieces of environmental legislation that have been passed by Congress and signed into law by various Presidents over the years. Most of these laws are within the jurisdiction of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which can ensure compliance, seek injunctions (court orders that stop certain activity that violates the law) and curtail harmful activity through the pursuit of fines, criminal prosecutions, and other enforcement efforts.
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
- The NEPA sets the nation's overall framework for environmental protection.
- The law requires federal agencies to consider the environment when making important decisions -- like whether to build a highway or allow mining on federal land -- and prepare Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs), to assess and report on how proposed actions may affect the environment.
- Most states have set up a similar framework to require environmental impact studies prior to allowing certain development activities that could affect natural resources.
- For more, check out the EPA's National Environmental Policy Act site.
Clean Air Act
- The Clean Air Act "regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources," according to the EPA.
- The act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to regulate the emission of harmful air pollutants.
- The law "calls for states and EPA to solve multiple air pollution problems through programs based on the latest science and technology information."
- Get more details on the EPA's Clean Air Act web page.
Clean Water Act
- Establishes the federal framework for regulating the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters.
- Enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, this legislation was significantly revised and expanded in 1972, when it became known as the "Clean Water Act."
- The Clean Water Act allows the Environmental Protection Agency to set wastewater standards for commercial activity, and to set water quality standards for all surface water pollutants.
Safe Drinking Water Act
- The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed to protect the nation's supplies of public drinking water.
- The act lets the EPA set acceptable levels of physical, chemical, biological and radiological substances in public water systems.
- Under the SDWA, public water supply systems must inform customers about any failure to meet EPA standards.
- States must act to protect wellheads, aquifers and underground wells from contamination under the SDWA.
Toxic Substances Control Act
- The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976, to provide the EPA with "authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures" -- giving the agency the power to gather information to determine if chemicals are toxic to human health and the environment.
- Under the TSCA, businesses must report use of toxic substances in industry, and maintain proper records -- observing strict requirements for asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and radon, among other things.
- The TSCA was updated in 2016, with passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act
- The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act regulates the distribution, sale, and use of pesticides.
- All pesticides must be registered with and licensed by the EPA, only after the applicant can demonstrate that proper use of the pesticide "will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.''
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed in 1976, gives the EPA the authority to regulate hazardous waste from "cradle to grave."
- Under RCRA, hazardous material must be tracked from production through transportation, storage and disposal; and hazardous waste may only be disposed of in an approved facility.
- Handlers and disposers of hazardous waste are subject to strict reporting and operational requirements.
- Enacted in 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), gives the EPA broad authority "to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment."
- CERCLA creates the environmental "Superfund", which is used to finance governmental cleanup activities at contaminated sites.
- The Act permits governments and private parties to sue those responsible for the unlawful generation, transportation or disposal of hazardous waste.
The Endangered Species Act
- Passed in 1973 in part to replace the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act "provides for the conservation of" endangered or threatened land and marine species, and the "conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Where do I report activity that I think could be harmful to 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?