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FAQ - Environmental Law

An Overview of Key Federal Environmental Laws

An Overview of Key Federal Environmental Laws

Did you know that there are over ten major federal laws that deal with protecting the environment and the health and safety of U.S. residents? Additionally, this does not include the multitude of other federal acts, rules, and regulations that deal with the environment. Beyond the federal laws, rules, and regulations there are also scores of environmental laws that have been enacted by the states or local governments. The following is a summary of the major federal environmental laws.

The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 and contains detailed provisions to regulate air emissions from various sources. Ensuring compliance with the Act, as with most other federal environmental laws, is the responsibility of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In that regard, the EPA was empowered by the Act to create National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), which set acceptable levels of emissions from both stationary and mobile sources.

Initially, it was the goal of the EPA to establish and reach NAAQS for all areas of the country by 1975. Unfortunately, the goal was not achieved, and in 1977, the Act was amended to extend the deadline for areas that had not reached compliance levels.

Later, in 1990, the Act was again amended to address areas of concern that had come to the forefront in the twenty years since the Act was put into effect. For example, the initial version of the Act either did not address, or did not sufficiently address, issues such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and air toxins.

The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1977 as an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. As with the Clean Air Act, the EPA enforces the Clean Water Act, with assistance in particular matters from state agencies or entities. The Clean Water Act makes it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a source point into navigable waters of the United States, unless he or she has obtained a special permit from the EPA allowing such activity. Ten years after its enactment, the Clean Water Act was amended to include provisions which focused on toxic pollutants, authorized citizen suits (as opposed to solely government enforcement actions), and funded sewage treatment plants. As the Clean Water Act programs evolved over the last decade, they shifted from source-by-source and pollutant-by-pollutant approaches to more holistic strategies focusing equally on protecting healthy waters as well as improving impaired ones.

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

In 1980, Congress passed CERCLA for addressing uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites, accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants or contaminants. The Act creates a federal "Superfund" to clean up, contain, or remove pollutants and hazardous materials in these situations.

The EPA enforces CERCLA. Under the Act, the EPA has the power to determine and locate the parties responsible for the unsafe abandonment, spill, or release and require their participation in clean-up efforts. If the releaser cannot be found, or refuses to cooperate, the Act gives the EPA responsibility for cleaning up orphaned sites. Once a response action to a situation is complete, CERCLA allows the EPA to recover the costs of the action from financially solvent individuals and companies who were involved.

See also the "Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA)," below.

The Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)

In 1986, Congress enacted the EPCRA, which is also known as Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). EPCRA is designed to assist local communities in protecting the public health, safety, and environment from chemical hazards.

Under EPCRA, each state is required to create and maintain a State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), which is divided into Emergency Planning Districts. Each district must have a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). The SERCs and LEPCs are responsible for providing the community with information on chemical hazards that may affect the public and the dissemination of procedures to be followed in the event of an emergency hazardous situation.

The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act is a unique piece of legislation that was passed in 1973. The purpose of the Act is to protect, and hopefully repopulate, threatened or endangered plants, animals, and animal habitats. Many species of plants and animals are in danger of extinction due to the impact of humans and pollutants, irritants, and toxins released into their environments.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior maintains a list of over 600 endangered plant and animal species, and almost 200 threatened species. Under the Endangered Species Act, anyone can petition to prohibit activities that may have an adverse effect on either endangered or threatened species.

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)

FIFRA was passed by Congress in 1972 and is enforced by the EPA, which has the power to prohibit the sale, distribution, or use of pesticides such as insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides under the Act. If a threatened or endangered species will be adversely affected, the EPA can also issue an emergency suspension of certain pesticides.

FIFRA requires that farmers, utility companies, and other users of pesticides register when they purchase pesticides. These individuals are also required by the Act to take and pass a certification examination in order to apply pesticides. FIFRA also contains provisions which require that all pesticides used in the United States be approved and licensed by the EPA.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Passed in 1969, NEPA is one of the oldest federal environmental protection laws. The overall purpose of NEPA is to ensure that the government researches and gives proper consideration to potential environmental effects before undertaking any major federal action, such as construction of a new highway. As part of this consideration, the government must complete Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) for any action they contemplate.

The Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)

In 1970, concerned with the increasing lack of worker and workplace safety, Congress passed OSHA. The main thrust of OSHA is to require employers to provide their workers with a safe workplace. While some OSHA requirements do not directly affect the environment (such as the requirements concerning safety for workers on elevated sites), other provisions specifically address environmental issues (such as the use of toxic or hazardous substances in the workplace).

OSHA is one of the few federal laws related to the environment that is not controlled by the EPA. Instead, OSHA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor in concert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which was specifically created to deal with OSHA issues. In addition, many states have their own workplace safety and health acts. The state acts must have provisions in place that meet, or exceed, the federal OSHA requirements.

The Pollution Prevention Act

One of the newer federal environmental protection laws, the Pollution Prevention Act, was passed in 1990. The Act includes provisions for reducing the amount of pollution in the environment by making changes in production, operation, and use of raw materials by private industry and the government. In other words, the Act is proactively focused on source reduction of pollution, rather than reactively focusing on dealing with pollution once it has entered the environment. An area of the Pollution Prevention Act which has had a dramatic and recognizable impact on the general public is the push toward recycling and reuse of materials.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

This Act (pronounced "rick-rah") allows the EPA to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also contains provisions for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. In practice, RCRA complements CERCLA, and together provide mechanisms for controlling all hazardous waste situations. While RCRA focuses upon active and future facilities, CERCLA deals with abandoned or historical sites and emergency situations.

In 1984, the federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA, pronounced "hiss-wa") were passed by Congress. HSWA amends RCRA to require the phasing out of land disposal of hazardous waste. To accomplish this goal, and to respond to other insufficiencies in RCRA, HSWA also created greater enforcement authority for the EPA and more stringent hazardous waste management standards. With the phasing out of land disposal of hazardous waste, the EPA soon discovered that new storage issues were coming to the forefront. Therefore, in 1986 an amendment to RCRA was passed which allowed the EPA to focus on and address specific issues and concerns related to the underground storage of petroleum and other products.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

Enacted in 1974, SDWA, as the name implies, addresses issues relating to the quality and safety of drinking water in the United States. Under SDWA, the EPA is authorized to establish purity standards for both aboveground and underground sources of water that are either designated for, or potentially designated for, human consumption. SDWA contains both health-related standards and nuisance-related standards. These standards are enforced with the cooperation of state governments.

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA)

This 1986 federal act reauthorized CERCLA to continue efforts to clean-up hazardous waste resulting from abandoned sites, spills, and releases. Some provisions of SARA specifically address problems or concerns that arose at specific sites.

Title III of SARA also created the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), as described above.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

The purpose of TSCA, enacted in 1976, is to allow for the testing, regulation, and screening of all chemicals produced or imported into the U.S. before they reach the consumer market place.

TSCA also allows for the tracking of all existing chemicals that pose health or environmental hazards and for the implementation of cleanup procedures in the case of toxic material contamination. TSCA supplements other federal laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Release Inventory under EPCRA.

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