Environmental law encompasses the body of local, state, national, and international laws and regulations relating to pollution, natural resources, animal rights, and environmental conservation.

The History of Environmental Law

Throughout most of history, environmental laws were mostly based on nuisance. For instance, there might be regulations to deal with obnoxious smells coming from contaminated land or water. Environmental laws and regulations as we now know them appeared largely beginning in the 20th century, and have become an increasing source of focus in the United States since the 1960s.

The Environmental Policy of the United States

The environmental policy of the United States is to protect the environment and preserve it for the future, without undue interference in business and commerce. In the U.S., law, regulations and inducements are used to carry out this policy. Inducements are motivations, either positive or negative, to influence people and groups of people in carrying out environmental policy.

What are the Major Environmental Laws?

The list of United States environmental laws is extensive. in addition to law that pertain specifically to the environment, there are other laws that, while not specifically about the environment, nevertheless impact it. Some of the major laws that pertain specifically to the environment are:

  • Clean Air Act;
  • Clean Water Act;
  • CERCLA (Superfund-cleanup of contaminated sites);
  • Endangered Species Act;
  • Energy Policy Act of 2005;
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act;
  • Food Quality Protection Act;
  • National Environmental Policy Act;
  • National Forest Management Act;
  • Nuclear Waste Policy Act;
  • Ocean Dumping Act;
  • Oil Pollution Act; and
  • Safe Drinking Water Act.

Although there are many other laws affecting the environment, those listed above give a good idea of what environmental law is meant to protect: the land, water, animals, forests, things that people consume and other issues of environmental and human health.

In addition to federal laws, environmental laws are enacted at the state and local level. Most states also have their own environmental regulatory agencies, and agencies for regulating natural resources.

Federal and state courts have also played a role in developing environmental law in the United States.

What are the Major Environmental Regulations?

Regulations are rules made by government agencies, which, like laws, affect the way we deal with environmental policy. Also like law, there are many regulations that impact the environment although they do not specifically mention it. However, the most prominent environmental regulations are those of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA is authorized by Congress to write regulations, which operate in cooperation with the laws, helping to outline details and procedures that might be absent from the laws themselves. A variety of other agencies are responsible for regulating specific activities. For example, the United States Forest Service oversees matters relating to national forests.

What Do Environmental Laws Govern?

Environmental laws are used to regulate many aspects of business and public use. The main concerns of environmental law are:

  • Air quality;
  • Water Quality;
  • Waste Management;
  • Contaminant Cleanup;
  • Chemical Safety; and
  • Hunting and Fishing.

While many of the above are mainly concerned with businesses, issues with hunting and fishing are mainly geared towards the consumer. But, they can also impact businesses if they wish to dam a body of water (impacting fish migration) or build on conservation/hunting lands.

What are Environmental Violations?

Environmental violations are, put simply, activities or conditions which fail to comply with environmental laws and/or regulations. Some examples of environmental violations are:

  • Illegal hazardous waste dumping
  • Illegal pesticide use
  • Burning garbage
  • Improperly disposing of and removing asbestos
  • Destruction of wetlands
  • Unpermitted industrial activity
  • Releasing particulates into the air
  • Illegal automobile emissions

Some activities that rise beyond the level of environmental violations, and constitute environmental emergencies, include oil and chemical spills.

What is Environmental Contamination?

Environmental contamination is the introduction into an environment of toxic substances, or chemicals or wastes in a quantity that damages the environment and renders it unsuitable for its next intended purpose.

It can include contamination that isn’t typically “toxic”, like salt. In our history, there are a few cases where salt has poured into a person’s property, essentially rendering it useless for farming. The salt is not removable, and can last for hundreds of years. In cases like this, salt isn’t really “toxic” but the contamination is so great that it is impossible to recover which renders it unusable.

What is Contaminated Property?

Contaminated property or sites are those lands that have been contaminated by any of a variety of environmental violations. Mineral extractions, accidental spills, illegal dumping, waste disposal, pesticide use, fertilizer applications, national defense activities and even acts of nature such as hurricanes can be the cause of a site becoming contaminated.

The EPA attempts to track contaminated sites across the United States, as well as oversee the cleanup of the sites.

What Should I Do if I am Accused of an Environmental Violation?

For the most part, environmental violations are civil in nature, meaning that they are enforced via lawsuits in civil court, not criminal court. The primary penalties for environmental violations are monetary in nature. Fines can be extremely high in the case of large violations, and particularly extreme violations may lead to criminal penalties.

Violations of environmental law are also enforced by agencies, and agencies may hold administrative hearings to decide on matters of environmental violations.

You should be prepared to gather your evidence and environmental reports, as typically required by the EPA or local government. If you are guilty of contamination/violations, then be prepared to begin the clean-up process.

Trying to further hide the violations will only result in more serious consequences and criminal penalties.

Do I Need an Environmental Lawyer?

Some environmental lawyers use the court system to address pressing environmental concerns. Others advocate for laws and regulations to protect the environment and promote sustainable growth. Whether you are a concerned citizen or a business seeking advice on an environmental issue, discussing your legal matter with an environmental government lawyer can help you achieve your objectives.