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Environmental Law - Overview

federal act national pollution

Up until the 1960s, environmental regulation in the United States was mostly left to state and local governments. There was very little, if any, national control. Since most regulation occurred at the city and state government level, it was difficult for authorities to enforce laws beyond their own territories, especially if the source of the pollution emanated from another region or state. Business and industries that caused large amounts of pollution could affect vast areas around them with little concern of either discovery or the payment of legal reparations.

The climate during the 1960s was ripe for the federal government to adopt a national strategy on environmental regulation. The country was becoming more aware that complete freedom for business and industry resulted in large scale environmental damage and that safety limits needed to be instituted to protect waterways, air, natural resources, and scenic areas.

Several elements influenced the national movement toward greater control over polluters. First, the 1960s was a decade of incredible commercial growth. There was greater production on the part of manufacturing and industry and that consequently resulted in greater consumption. More waste was produced, national cancer rates soared, and the public enjoyed an unbridled economic growth that brought with it a high price tag. Second, in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. In her book, she questioned the use of chemical pesticides and demonstrated how they could penetrate the food chain through reproductive dysfunctions, thereby posing significant health risks to animals and humans. National suspicion grew over the use of pesticides, prompting research and eventually contributing to the ban of the pesticide DDT in the United States in 1973. Third, on 22 April 1970, the first Earth Day was held. This educated hundreds of thousands of Americans to the need for sound environmental health. Fourth, the occurrence of several environmental catastrophes throughout the last two decades gradually made the country conscious of the destructive power of pollution and the contamination of the environment. Events that contributed to increased attention on the environment included: the nuclear accident at Three Mile island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979; a devastating emission of poisonous gas at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984; the discharge of radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986; the dumping of 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989; and the burning of hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

As more evidence of environmental degradation appeared, the United States federal government was forced to delegate a greater focus on regulation. State and local governments played a major role in the battle against pollution, but it was the U.S. Congress that passed the most comprehensive laws, requiring the states to shape their pollution control programs to fit federal standards. States are free to set tougher standards within their own jurisdictions, but they must adhere to the federal minimums.

The first significant federal legislation came with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969. It required that all federal government agencies follow certain rules when considering a proposed project. These rules include requiring federal agencies to use a systematic procedure in environmental decision making. Detailed reporting, commonly called impact studies, regarding the effects of proposed projects must be completed. The report for a proposed project must include the expected environmental impacts, any unavoidable negative impacts, short and long-term benefits and consultation with other involved agencies.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in response to mounting environmental concern in the United States. The main responsibility of the EPA is the management of many complex and highly technical programs that regulate such broad and diverse problems as air and water pollution, waste disposal and toxic contamination. The EPA's primary duty is to require compliance with several major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Clean Water Act of 1977, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as Superfund.

Industrial, recreational, agricultural, and commercial activities that degrade the environment must be restricted through laws which balance the benefits and risks between the economic costs and the desired environmental outcomes. Setting limits on economic activity is a difficult task, especially when lawmakers and scientists are involved. The following statutes reflect the effort involved in trying to balance between these benefits and risks.

Environmental Law - Clean Air Act [next]

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