What Environmental Protection Laws Exist in the United States?

At the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the U.S. passed a number of important laws on environmental issues, including pollution, species protection, and natural resource management.

These are some of the most important U.S. Environmental laws.

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, also known as NEPA, does three important things:

  • Describes environmental policies and goals on a national scale

  • Requires that federal agencies consider environmental outcomes and effects in their decision making

  • Creates the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the president on environmental matters

NEPA asks federal agencies to complete an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to study in detail how a project will affect the environment and to explore possible alternatives that would be less harmful. NEPA doesn’t block any federally funded project, regardless of its negative environmental impacts.

Rather, NEPA simply requires that agencies make public the likely and potential outcomes of their projects so that U.S. taxpayers are informed about the environmental impacts. The fact that agencies have to inform the public is often enough to halt or postpone projects of grave environmental damage thanks to negative public opinion.

Clean Air Act of 1970 and 1990

The Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA) established the first set of standardized rules concerning air pollution on a national scale. Its overall goal is to improve air quality for the health of U.S. citizens. The CAA outlines guidelines for identifying conventional or criteria pollutants and regulating air pollution from industry and automobiles. Updated with amendments in 1990, the current Clean Air Act addresses the following issues:

  • Cutting emissions of the most common, or criteria, air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, particulates, and lead

  • Setting emissions standards for motor vehicles

  • Controlling the release of toxic air pollutants

  • Targeting sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions to reduce acid rain

  • Keeping the air in national parks clean and clear

  • Reducing pollutants that cause ozone damage

Clean Water Act of 1972

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) and its amendments in 1977 regulate how pollutants are released into waterways in the U.S. The CWA sets standards for acceptable levels of certain pollutants in surface waters (though it doesn’t cover groundwater contamination) and requires industries that release point source pollution (pollution with a clear origination) into waterways to get a permit first.

Unfortunately, the CWA guidelines and permit procedures don’t apply to nonpoint source water pollutants, which don’t have a clear origination and are still a major problem.

The water quality standards set up by the CWA are viewed as some of the most effective environmental policy ever enacted. Water quality across the nation improved dramatically following the passing of the Clean Water Act. Prior to this act, there was no limit to what type of pollutants and how much waste industries could dump into the nation’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Endangered Species Act of 1973

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects species from extinction and authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create and implement recovery plans for endangered species. The act allows for protection of both individual species and the areas of habitat that endangered species depend on.

Although many species listed as endangered have become extinct, the ESA has helped some species, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, grey whale, grizzly, grey wolf, and whooping crane, recover to levels healthy enough that they could be removed from the endangered species list.

Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

While the Clean Water Act of 1970 regulates pollution in surface waters, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) targets waters above or below ground that are specifically designated for human drinking water. This act implements standards of health for drinking water based on peer-reviewed science.

Amendments to the SDWA include requiring that public water supplies be constructed of lead-free pipes to reduce lead contamination and regulating the levels of bacteria in airline drinking water supplies. The act doesn’t apply to bottled drinking water, which falls under the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976

Congress created the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) as an amendment to the previously existing Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 to further regulate the disposal of waste. Most importantly, this act regulates hazardous waste from “cradle to grave,” which means it includes all phases in the life cycle of hazardous waste from production to transportation to storage to final disposal.

Other goals of the RCRA include reducing waste through recycling and keeping natural resources from being contaminated by waste.

National Forest Management Act of 1976

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that forest managers approach resource management from a more interdisciplinary perspective and consider the effects of timber removal on ecosystems. The act also asks forest managers to create resource management plans that consider other uses for the forest resources (such as recreation, mining, and ecosystem services) and approach logging in more sustainable ways.

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 regulates coal mining in the U.S. and creates a fund to pay for the cleanup and restoration of land used for mining. In particular, the act targets strip mining for coal, which dramatically changes the shapes of the earth’s surface, by requiring that surface contours be returned to their original conditions to reduce the impacts of mining on the landscape.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERCLA, established the Superfund to finance the cleanup of toxic waste at sites across the nation. In 1994, Congress amended this act to require that the parties responsible for the hazardous or toxic waste mess share responsibility for cleanup costs.

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