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Overview: Key Federal Environmental Laws

At least 10 major federal laws deal with protecting the environment and the health and safety of U.S. residents. This is in addition to the multitude of other federal acts, rules, and administrative environmental regulations. There are also scores of environmental laws that have been enacted by state and local government. 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 that regulate air emissions from various different 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.

The Act was amended in 1990 to address areas of concern that had come to the forefront in the 20 since it 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 and is enforced by the EPA, with assistance in particular matters from state agencies or entities. The Act makes it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a source point into navigable waters of the United States unless they have obtained a special permit allowing such activity from the EPA. 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 just government enforcement actions), and funded sewage treatment plants.

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

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

Under the Act, the EPA has the power to track down 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 or situations. Once a "response action" to a situation is completed, CERCLA allows for 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). The EPCRA is designed to provide assistance to local communities in protecting the public health, safety, and environment from chemical hazards.

Under the 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 there is 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)

NEPA is one of the oldest federal environmental protection laws, having been passed in 1969. 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 that relate 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 which meet, if not exceed, the federal OSHA requirements.

The Pollution Prevention Act

The Pollution Prevention Act, passed in 1990, includes provisions aimed at reducing the amount of pollution in the environment by making changes in production, operation, and use of raw materials by both private industry and the government. In other words, the Act is proactively focused on source reduction of pollution, rather than reactively focusing upon how to deal 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 towards recycling and reuse of materials.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

This Act allows the EPA to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also contains provisions for the management of nonhazardous solid wastes. In practice, RCRA complements CERCLA and the two, 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) were passed by Congress, amending 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 upon and address specific issues and concerns related to the underground storage of petroleum and other products.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

This 1974 law, 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. Both 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 abandonments, spills, and releases. Some provisions of SARA specifically address problems or concerns that arose at specific CERCLA involved 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, a 1976 Act of Congress, 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.

Compliance with Federal Environmental Laws: Get Legal Help

Even an innocent mistake that violates a key federal environmental law can have devastating affects on small businesses. If you need help identifying environmental laws relevant to your business -- and complying with them -- you may want to speak with a business and commercial law attorney for help.

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