Environmental legislation is the set of laws and regulations that protect air quality, water, wildlife, and environmental health. The umbrella of environmental legislation covers many laws and regulations, yet they all work together toward a common goal, which is regulating the interaction between man and the natural world to reduce threats to the environment and increase public health.

  • Prior to the 1970s, there were few mechanisms in place to protect the environment and the natural resources found within the United States. Mounting concerns led to environmental legislation designed to protect the environment from harmful actions.

Understanding Environmental Law

An example: a company wants to build a coal-burning power plant for the community. 

  1. Where should this power plant be built? 
  2. What type of pollutants might result from the coal burning and what measures will need to be taken to control harmful emissions? 
  3. How will this impact species that inhabit the land downwind of the plant? 

These are all considerations to be evaluated within the scope of environmental law.

Top 5 Environmental Laws: 

  1. The Clean Air Act
  2. The Endangered Species Act
  3. The Montreal Protocol
  4. The Clean Water Act
  5. Reformation Plan No. 3 of 1970

Because of the enactment of these laws, the health of Americans and our environment has dramatically improved.

Clean Air Act

By the time President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first Clean Air Act in 1963 (amended in 1966, 1970, 1977, and 1990) America’s air had been under siege for decades. “It’s safe to say that our air was bad and getting worse,” says Frank O’Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization. “Many cities were choking in smog.”

  1. The 1948 incident in Pennsylvania saw an unseasonable temperature inversion blocked emissions from a zinc blast furnace. A week later, the “Donora Death Fog,” as it would come to be known, ended but not before 20 people were killed and more than 600 were diagnosed with serious illness.
  2. For the month of October 1954 in Los Angeles, a number of smog attacks blanketed the region. 
    1. Planes were diverted from airports. 
    2. Children stayed home from school. 
    3. Over 2,000 automobile accidents occurred in a single day. 
    4. A survey of L.A. doctors found that almost 95 percent had treated the “smog complex”—irritated eyes, cough, nausea, and headaches.

America’s air needed serious help, hence the Clean Air Act, the principle law addressing air pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions. There is no doubt that it has saved lives.

  1. One of the major provisions of the 1970 amendment was the phase-out of lead-based gasoline.
  2. By 1995, the percentage of U.S. children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had dropped from 88 percent to 4 percent, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. In 2002, a report by the Journal of American Medical Association credited the act’s automobile emission regulations with reducing carbon monoxide related deaths.

Endangered Species Act

“It is one of the few laws that expressly values non-human life,” says Peter Galvin, conservation director, Center for Biological Diversity.

  • The peregrine falcon.
  • The key deer.
  • The grizzly bear.
  • The red wolf. 
  • The blas eagle- a bird of majestic beauty and great strength, in 1782 the founding fathers of Continental Congress voted to make the bald eagle America’s symbol.

Just a fraction of the hundreds of species whose populations have increased because of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Signed into law by President Nixon on December 28, 1973, all of the act’s protections are provided to endangered species. Many, but not all, of those protections also are available to threatened species. The Environmental Protection Agency’s sister law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was the world’s first law that mandated an ecosystem approach to marine resource management.

Montreal Protocol

Signed in 1987, revised seven times, and ratified by 196 nations, the Montreal Protocolofficially known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer—has been hailed as, “…perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,” by Kofi Anan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. In scientific terms, it phased out ozone-depleting substances, namely chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). This, in turn, prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation—invisible rays that are part of the sun’s energy—from entering earth’s atmosphere. In layman’s terms, it got rid of a bunch of harmful chemicals used in everyday life; CFCs were found in air conditioning systems, fire control solvents, and hair spray canisters.

  • “You wouldn’t have been able to go outside without getting sunburned in ten minutes,” says Durwood Zaelke, president, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, considering current atmospheric conditions had there been no Montreal Protocol.
  • Zaelke’s answer sounds like hyperbole, but it’s in alignment with a 2009 NASA simulation. 
  • However, since CFCs have a long atmospheric life, the ozone layer will not fully recover until “…after 2050,” says Zaelke.
  • The treaty has also helped slow climate change.

Clean Water Act

America’s fresh water systems, lakes, rivers, streams, in the late 1960s and early 1970s were basically sewers. President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the primary federal law addressing water quality standards for the nation’s waterways.

  • Amended in 1987 to ramp up controls on toxic pollutants.
  • And in 1990 to more adequately address oil spills after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
  • The act asks states to develop plans to protect their watersheds from pollution.
  • Gone are the days of river fires, and the legislation has stopped countless millions of pounds of pollution from entering our waterways.
  • Still work to be done. In 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the act’s passage, the EPA found that 39 percent of the rivers, 45 percent of the lakes, and 51 percent of the estuaries monitored were contaminated.
The risks facing Canada's drinking water - Macleans.ca

Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970

Signed in 1970 by President Nixon, this ruling gave birth to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Reorganization Plan No. 3 grew out of the National Environmental Policy Act. “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food,” said Nixon.

The EPA’s success stories are too many to enumerate, but here is a sample (as reported by ABC News):

  • In the 20 years since the EPA launched the Energy Star program to assist consumers with energy-efficient products, Americans have saved $16 billion on their energy bills.
  • From 1970 to 1990, lead reductions due to the EPA’s Clean Air Act programs prevented 205,000 deaths and the loss of 10.4 million I.Q. points in children.
  • In terms of smog-pollutants, 2010’s cars are 98 percent cleaner than the gas-guzzlers on the road in 1970 when the EPA was born.


Why is Environmental Law Important? Environmental laws play a huge part in protecting humans, animals, resources, and habitats. Without these laws, there would be no regulations concerning pollution, contamination, hunting, or even response to disasters.

So why understand them?

  1. One, it is important to know about any laws that could be affecting your life. Or laws that you may be breaking by non-compliance.
  2. It is an awareness of compliance. Negligence of these laws results in various punishments like fines, community service, and in some extreme cases, jail time.
  3. Without these environmental laws, the government would not be able to punish those who treat the environment poorly.
  4. Environmental laws are current, ever-changing, and incredibly important to human life.

Additional Important Environmental Laws to Know & Understand

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)- CERCLA addresses how uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites, accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants or contaminants should be handled. 

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)- FIFRA addresses 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 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)- 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. 

The Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)- OSHA addresses concerns with the increasing lack of worker and workplace safety.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)- RCRA addresses the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)- SDWAaddresses issues relating to the quality and safety of drinking water in the United States. 

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)- 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.

Compliance with Federal Environmental Laws: Get Legal Help- If you need help identifying environmental laws relevant to your business — and complying with them — you can speak with a business and commercial law attorney for help.

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