Environmental Law


Environmental Law: An Overview

A variety of protections with the goal of protecting the environment.  Environmental law is a “belt-and-suspenders” collection of laws that work together and often overlap in areas.

Federal Law

Federal Law: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1970 along with the Environmental Quality Improvement Act, the National Environmental Education Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The main objective of these federal enactments was to assure that the environment be protected against both public and private actions that failed to take account of costs or harms inflicted on the eco-system.
The EPA is supposed to monitor and analyze the environment, conduct research, and work closely with state and local governments to devise pollution control policies. NEPA (really enacted in 1969) has been described as one of Congress's most far reaching environmental legislation ever passed. The basic purpose of NEPA is to force governmental agencies to consider the effects of their decisions on the environment.

Major Federal Laws:

Endangered Species Act (ESA):  The goal is first to prevent extinction of endangered plants and animals, and second to recover these populations by preventing threats to their survival.
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA):  A “cradle-to-grave” system of preventing pollution.  This uses a manifest system to ensure that waste is properly disposed of, and thus not dumped into the environment.
Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA): Also known as the “superfund” this statute is aimed at cleaning up already polluted areas.  This statute assigns liability to almost anyone associated with the improper disposal of hazardous waste, and is designed to provide funding for clean up.
Clean Air Act (CAA):  The CAA is designed to protect air quality by regulating stationary and mobile sources of pollution.
Clean Water Act (CWA):  The CWA protects water by preventing discharge of pollutants into navigable waters from point sources.

Common Law

Common Law Protections:  Common law protections allow a land-owner who’s land is being polluted to sue the polluter.  A landowner may sue under a theory of trespass (a physical invasion of the property) or nuisance (an interference with the landowner’s enjoyment of his property).  Each of theses theories will include an element of reasonableness – there will be no recovery if the neighbor is making a reasonable use of the land.  Reasonableness will depend on the facts of the specific case.
Additionally, an action may be brought under public nuisance where the suit is brought by a public entity if it is the public that is harmed (rather then a uniquely harmed individual).

State Law

State Law:  State laws also reflect the same concerns and common law actions which allow adversely affected property owners to seek a judicial remedy for environmental harms.  Although laws on the state level vary from state to state, many of them mirror the federal laws (allowing an additional forum for aggrieved landowners) or codify the common law actions.  Additionally, state laws may require a higher level of protection then federal law.


menu of sources

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes

Code of Federal Regulations

Federal Judicial Decisions

State Material

State Statutes and Regulations

State Judicial Decisions

International Material

Conventions and Treaties

Other References

Key Internet Sources

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Category: Property & Natural Resources