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Environmental Law - Resource Conservation And Recovery Act

species endangered hazardous waste

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976 to address management of the country's huge volume of solid waste. The law requires that the EPA regulate the management of hazardous waste, which includes waste solvents, batteries, and many other substances considered potentially harmful to human health and to the environment. RCRA controls all aspects of hazardous wastes from the point of generation, to treatment, storage, and disposal. Those states that meet the EPA specifications are eligible for monetary assistance and technical support. The RCRA was further amended in 1984 to include recycling as part of the state requirement for a solid waste disposal plan.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, popularly known as Superfund, is an act that provides for liability, compensation, cleanup, and emergency response for hazardous substances released into the environment. It was created in response to the Love Canal tragedy and includes cleanup of inactive hazardous waste disposal sites, such as abandoned warehouses, manufacturing facilities, processing plants, and landfills.

The Superfund program is administered by the EPA through the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in cooperation with individual states. Once Superfund locates a hazardous site anywhere in the United States, it investigates and then cleans up the site. When those responsible for the damage cannot be located, Superfund passes the cost of the cleanup on tohe taxpayer. Over 30,000 toxic waste disposal sites have been targeted for cleanup.

In 1986 when Congress amended the Superfund law, it added the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). This came as a result of public fears over the Union Carbide chemical release in Bhopal, India. The EPCRA is designed to help communities prepare for and respond to emergencies involving hazardous substances. It also requires facilities to report hazardous chemical inventories and comply with toxic chemical reporting. Any facility that releases more than a predetermined amount of certain hazardous substances into the environment must notify the appropriate state and local emergency planning entities immediately.

Toxic Substances Control Act

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 governs the manufacturing, importing, distributing, and processing of all toxic chemicals. TSCA requires that all such chemicals be inspected and approved by the EPA before they enter the market. The EPA has the option of restricting the chemical run tests and gathering data during its preapproval judgment of whether the chemical represents a threat to health or the environment. The TSCA has never been strictly enforced because of deficient funding and the large volume of chemicals constantly being developed and manufactured.

Fungicide Federal Insecticide and Rodenticide Act

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1972, regulates the manufacture, storage and application of EPA registered pesticide products. The impetus for the passage of this legislation was national concern about the beneficial effects of pesticides used to control insects, rodents and fungi in comparison to the environmental harm caused by the use of pesticide products. Congress required the EPA through FIFRA to obtain toxicological, health, and environmental effects data on all pesticides in use.

Endangered Species Act

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted to stop the extinction of many species of wild animals and plants in the United States, other nations, and at sea. It provided mechanisms for the conservation of ecosystems on which endangered species depend. It also discouraged the exploitation of endangered species in other countries by banning the importation and trade of any product made from such species. Of critical concern was the loss of biodiversity through species extinction. This is an irreversible process and a fundamental environmental problem. The Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce administer the ESA. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for marine species while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for freshwater and terrestrial species.

The ESA provides two levels of protection for listed species. Those that are considered to be in immediate danger of extinction are listed as endangered and are provided with stringent protection regulations. If a plant or animal is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range (the region in which it lives), then it is considered endangered. Species that are likely to become endangered in the future are listed as threatened and protected with less restrictive regulations. A candidate species is a species under review for listing. The ESA prohibits the using, taking, possessing, selling, or marketing for sale or trade those species registered on the endangered list. Any international species may be recorded on the endangered species list.

Once a species is confirmed for the listing, a critical habitat must be specified. The critical habitat is the area which is required for the species to essentially thrive. Through this special protection the conservancy of the species is instituted. A species may be listed as endangered or threatened for one or more of the following reasons: alteration or reduction of habitat or range; overuse for business, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; futile protection regulations; disease, predatory effects or poaching, and any other natural forces or human activities affecting the survival possibilities. Generally, the economic impact as well as other factors are taken into consideration when designating critical habitat.

The ESA requires that the Secretary of Interior institute a recovery plan for listed species. A recovery team sets down parameters and management plans specific to the endangered species' critical habitat. By May of 1997 only slightly more than half of the listed U.S. species had recovery plans. More than 1,200 species worldwide, including more than 600 in the U.S. alone, are listed as threatened or endangered. Additionally, over 3,500 species are under consideration for listing.

A similar act to the ESA is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, which was enacted as a result of the large number of dolphins that were being killed by tuna fishing operations in the early 1970s. The MMPA protects all species of whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, polar bears, walrus, manatees, and sea otters from the impact of human activities. In the United States, 30 percent of endangered species are aquatic.


Administrative, civil, and even criminal sanctions may be used to enforce environmental laws. The possible types of restrictions may include denial or revocation of operational permits, the closing of operations, poor publicity, economic sanctions, fines, or even imprisonment. These sanctions occur at various levels of environmental enforcement--national, regional, and local.

The United States has had much experience in enforcing environmental requirements against public authorities. With only a few exceptions, the U.S. federal government has waived its exemption from fines and financial penalties. It has given both state governments and citizens the right to take the federal government and its agencies to court if the government authorities do not comply with federal, state, or local environmental requirements. However, it is easier for environmental associations such as Greenpeace and Sierra Club, and not individuals, to seek legal action as they have greater resources and expertise for advancing public interests in court. Based on the U.S. Constitution's Article III "case or controversy" requirement, a plaintiff's alleged injury must show fact, causation, and redressability. Proving these three requirements can be difficult for a single citizen.

Despite the comprehensive scope of diverse environmental laws, many corporate and individual polluters go undetected. General principles or guidelines are necessary to interpret and implement a flexible environmental law. These principles must include precautions in regulating pollution, cooperation between the regulating bodies and industry, maintenance of biodiversity, non-degradation of natural resources, the idea of polluter-pays, access to information and participation, and the theory of burden of proof. As stated by Sevine Ercmann in Environmental Law, "These principles should orient the decision-makers when they take decisions interpreting or enforcing certain issues under different circumstances. National and global environmental deterioration has gone too far, and confidence and patience in experimenting with new tools of enforcement are diminishing." As international environmental destruction escalates at a greater rate than in the United States, it is important to remember that everyone is made vulnerable by environmental problems wherever they occur. The destruction of the tropical rainforest, the widespread damage done by acid rain, global warming, ocean dumping, and ozone depletion are but a few of the international concerns for countries throughout the world. Strict comprehensive, enforceable treaties dealing with these issues will require nations to relinquish some autonomy in their economic activities. However, without these measures in place, the future of the environment is in jeopardy.

Environmental Law - Toxic Substances Control Act [next] [back] Environmental Law - Safe Drinking Water Act

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