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33.5 Environmental Law

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the major federal laws that govern business activities that may adversely affect air quality and water quality.
  2. Describe the major federal laws that govern waste disposal and chemical hazards including pesticides.

In one sense, environmental law is very old. Medieval England had smoke control laws that established the seasons when soft coal could be burned. Nuisance laws give private individuals a limited control over polluting activities of adjacent landowners. But a comprehensive set of US laws directed toward general protection of the environment is largely a product of the past quarter-century, with most of the legislative activity stemming from the late 1960s and later, when people began to perceive that the environment was systematically deteriorating from assaults by rapid population growth and greatly increased automobile driving, vast proliferation of factories that generate waste products, and a sharp rise in the production of toxic materials. Two of the most significant developments in environmental law came in 1970, when the National Environmental Policy Act took effect and the Environmental Protection Agency became the first of a number of new federal administrative agencies to be established during the decade.

National Environmental Policy Act

Signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) declared that it shall be the policy of the federal government, in cooperation with state and local governments, “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.…The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.”42 United States Code, Section 4321 et seq.

The most significant aspect of NEPA is its requirement that federal agencies prepare an environmental impact statementA statement mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act that is required of most federal agencies and includes an assessment of whether the agency’s actions will significantly affect environmental quality. in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and whenever undertaking a major federal action that significantly affects environmental quality. The statement must (1) detail the environmental impact of the proposed action, (2) list any unavoidable adverse impacts should the action be taken, (3) consider alternatives to the proposed action, (4) compare short-term and long-term consequences, and (5) describe irreversible commitments of resources. Unless the impact statement is prepared, the project can be enjoined from proceeding. Note that NEPA does not apply to purely private activities but only to those proposed to be carried out in some manner by federal agencies.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been in the forefront of the news since its creation in 1970. Charged with monitoring environmental practices of industry, assisting the government and private business to halt environmental deterioration, promulgating regulations consistent with federal environmental policy, and policing industry for violations of the various federal environmental statutes and regulations, the EPA has had a pervasive influence on American business. Business Week noted the following in 1977: “Cars rolling off Detroit’s assembly line now have antipollution devices as standard equipment. The dense black smokestack emissions that used to symbolize industrial prosperity are rare, and illegal, sights. Plants that once blithely ran discharge water out of a pipe and into a river must apply for permits that are almost impossible to get unless the plants install expensive water treatment equipment. All told, the EPA has made a sizable dent in man-made environmental filth.”“The Tricks of the Trade-off,” Business Week, April 4, 1977, 72.

The EPA is especially active in regulating water and air pollution and in overseeing the disposition of toxic wastes and chemicals. To these problems we now turn.

Water Pollution

Clean Water Act

Legislation governing the nation’s waterways goes back a long time. The first federal water pollution statute was the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. Congress enacted new laws in 1948, 1956, 1965, 1966, and 1970. But the centerpiece of water pollution enforcement is the Clean Water Act of 1972 (technically, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972), as amended in 1977 and by the Water Quality Act of 1987. The Clean Water Act is designed to restore and maintain the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”33 United States Code, Section 1251. It operates on the states, requiring them to designate the uses of every significant body of water within their borders (e.g., for drinking water, recreation, commercial fishing) and to set water quality standards to reduce pollution to levels appropriate for each use.

Congress only has power to regulate interstate commerce, and so the Clean Water Act is applicable only to “navigable waters” of the United States. This has led to disputes over whether the act can apply, say, to an abandoned gravel pit that has no visible connection to navigable waterways, even if the gravel pit provides habitat for migratory birds. In Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, the US Supreme Court said no.Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001).

Private Industry

The Clean Water Act also governs private industry and imposes stringent standards on the discharge of pollutants into waterways and publicly owned sewage systems. The act created an effluent permit system known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. To discharge any pollutants into navigable waters from a “point source” like a pipe, ditch, ship, or container, a company must obtain a certification that it meets specified standards, which are continually being tightened. For example, until 1983, industry had to use the “best practicable technology” currently available, but after July 1, 1984, it had to use the “best available technology” economically achievable. Companies must limit certain kinds of “conventional pollutants” (such as suspended solids and acidity) by “best conventional control technology.”

Other EPA Water Activities

Federal law governs, and the EPA regulates, a number of other water control measures. Ocean dumping, for example, is the subject of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, which gives the EPA jurisdiction over wastes discharged into the oceans. The Clean Water Act gives the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers authority to protect waters, marshlands, and other wetlands against degradation caused by dredging and fills. The EPA also oversees state and local plans for restoring general water quality to acceptable levels in the face of a host of non-point-source pollution. The Clean Water Act controls municipal sewage systems, which must ensure that wastewater is chemically treated before being discharged from the sewage system.

Obviously, of critical importance to the nation’s health is the supply of drinking water. To ensure its continuing purity, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, with amendments passed in 1986 and 1996. This act aims to protect water at its sources: rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells. (The act does not regulate private wells that serve fewer than twenty-five individuals.) This law has two strategies for combating pollution of drinking water. It establishes national standards for drinking water derived from both surface reservoirs and underground aquifers. It also authorizes the EPA to regulate the injection of solid wastes into deep wells (as happens, for instance, by leakage from underground storage tanks).

Air Pollution

The centerpiece of the legislative effort to clean the atmosphere is the Clean Air Act of 1970 (amended in 1975, 1977, and 1990). Under this act, the EPA has set two levels of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The primary standards limit the ambient (i.e., circulating) pollution that affects human health; secondary standards limit pollution that affects animals, plants, and property. The heart of the Clean Air Act is the requirement that subject to EPA approval, the states implement the standards that the EPA establishes. The setting of these pollutant standards was coupled with directing the states to develop state implementation plans (SIPs), applicable to appropriate industrial sources in the state, in order to achieve these standards. The act was amended in 1977 and 1990 primarily to set new goals (dates) for achieving attainment of NAAQS since many areas of the country had failed to meet the deadlines.

Beyond the NAAQS, the EPA has established several specific standards to control different types of air pollution. One major type is pollution that mobile sources, mainly automobiles, emit. The EPA requires new cars to be equipped with catalytic converters and to use unleaded gasoline to eliminate the most noxious fumes and to keep them from escaping into the atmosphere. To minimize pollution from stationary sources, the EPA also imposes uniform standards on new industrial plants and those that have been substantially modernized. And to safeguard against emissions from older plants, states must promulgate and enforce SIPs.

The Clean Air Act is even more solicitous of air quality in certain parts of the nation, such as designated wilderness areas and national parks. For these areas, the EPA has set standards to prevent significant deterioration in order to keep the air as pristine and clear as it was centuries ago.

The EPA also worries about chemicals so toxic that the tiniest quantities could prove fatal or extremely hazardous to health. To control emission of substances like asbestos, beryllium, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, and arsenic, the EPA has established or proposed various National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.

Concern over acid rain and other types of air pollution prompted Congress to add almost eight hundred pages of amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. (The original act was fifty pages long.) As a result of these amendments, the act was modernized in a manner that parallels other environmental laws. For instance, the amendments established a permit system that is modeled after the Clean Water Act. And the amendments provide for felony convictions for willful violations, similar to penalties incorporated into other statutes.

The amendments include certain defenses for industry. Most important, companies are protected from allegations that they are violating the law by showing that they were acting in accordance with a permit. In addition to this “permit shield,” the law also contains protection for workers who unintentionally violate the law while following their employers’ instructions.

Waste Disposal

Though pollution of the air by highly toxic substances like benzene or vinyl chloride may seem a problem removed from that of the ordinary person, we are all in fact polluters. Every year, the United States generates approximately 230 million tons of “trash”—about 4.6 pounds per person per day. Less than one-quarter of it is recycled; the rest is incinerated or buried in landfills. But many of the country’s landfills have been closed, either because they were full or because they were contaminating groundwater. Once groundwater is contaminated, it is extremely expensive and difficult to clean it up. In the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act and the 1970 Resource Recovery Act, Congress sought to regulate the discharge of garbage by encouraging waste management and recycling. Federal grants were available for research and training, but the major regulatory effort was expected to come from the states and municipalities.

But shocking news prompted Congress to get tough in 1976. The plight of homeowners near Love Canal in upstate New York became a major national story as the discovery of massive underground leaks of toxic chemicals buried during the previous quarter century led to evacuation of hundreds of homes. Next came the revelation that Kepone, an exceedingly toxic pesticide, had been dumped into the James River in Virginia, causing a major human health hazard and severe damage to fisheries in the James and downstream in the Chesapeake Bay. The rarely discussed industrial dumping of hazardous wastes now became an open controversy, and Congress responded in 1976 with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and in 1980 with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The RCRA expresses a “cradle-to-grave” philosophy: hazardous wastes must be regulated at every stage. The act gives the EPA power to govern their creation, storage, transport, treatment, and disposal. Any person or company that generates hazardous waste must obtain a permit (known as a “manifest”) either to store it on its own site or ship it to an EPA-approved treatment, storage, or disposal facility. No longer can hazardous substances simply be dumped at a convenient landfill. Owners and operators of such sites must show that they can pay for damage growing out of their operations, and even after the sites are closed to further dumping, they must set aside funds to monitor and maintain the sites safely.

This philosophy can be severe. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that bankruptcy is not a sufficient reason for a company to abandon toxic waste dumps if state regulations reasonably require protection in the interest of public health or safety. The practical effect of the ruling is that trustees of the bankrupt company must first devote assets to cleaning up a dump site, and only from remaining assets may they satisfy creditors.Midlantic National Bank v. New Jersey, 474 U.S. 494 (1986). Another severity is RCRA’s imposition of criminal liability, including fines of up to $25,000 a day and one-year prison sentences, which can be extended beyond owners to individual employees, as discussed in U.S. v. Johnson & Towers, Inc., et al., (see Section 33.6.2 "Criminal Liability of Employees under RCRA").

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

The CERCLA, also known as the Superfund, gives the EPA emergency powers to respond to public health or environmental dangers from faulty hazardous waste disposal, currently estimated to occur at more than seventeen thousand sites around the country. The EPA can direct immediate removal of wastes presenting imminent danger (e.g., from train wrecks, oil spills, leaking barrels, and fires). Injuries can be sudden and devastating; in 1979, for example, when a freight train derailed in Florida, ninety thousand pounds of chlorine gas escaped from a punctured tank car, leaving 8 motorists dead and 183 others injured and forcing 3,500 residents within a 7-mile radius to be evacuated. The EPA may also carry out “planned removals” when the danger is substantial, even if immediate removal is not necessary.

The EPA prods owners who can be located to voluntarily clean up sites they have abandoned. But if the owners refuse, the EPA and the states will undertake the task, drawing on a federal trust fund financed mainly by taxes on the manufacture or import of certain chemicals and petroleum (the balance of the fund comes from general revenues). States must finance 10 percent of the cost of cleaning up private sites and 50 percent of the cost of cleaning up public facilities. The EPA and the states can then assess unwilling owners’ punitive damages up to triple the cleanup costs.

Cleanup requirements are especially controversial when applied to landowners who innocently purchased contaminated property. To deal with this problem, Congress enacted the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act in 1986, which protects innocent landowners who—at the time of purchase—made an “appropriate inquiry” into the prior uses of the property. The act also requires companies to publicly disclose information about hazardous chemicals they use. We now turn to other laws regulating chemical hazards.

Chemical Hazards

Toxic Substances Control Act

Chemical substances that decades ago promised to improve the quality of life have lately shown their negative side—they have serious adverse side effects. For example, asbestos, in use for half a century, causes cancer and asbestosis, a debilitating lung disease, in workers who breathed in fibers decades ago. The result has been crippling disease and death and more than thirty thousand asbestos-related lawsuits filed nationwide. Other substances, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxin, have caused similar tragedy. Together, the devastating effects of chemicals led to enactment of the TSCA, designed to control the manufacture, processing, commercial distribution, use, and disposal of chemicals that pose unreasonable health or environmental risks. (The TSCA does not apply to pesticides, tobacco, nuclear materials, firearms and ammunition, food, food additives, drugs, and cosmetics—all are regulated by other federal laws.)

The TSCA gives the EPA authority to screen for health and environmental risks by requiring companies to notify the EPA ninety days before manufacturing or importing new chemicals. The EPA may demand that the companies test the substances before marketing them and may regulate them in a number of ways, such as requiring the manufacturer to label its products, to keep records on its manufacturing and disposal processes, and to document all significant adverse reactions in people exposed to the chemicals. The EPA also has authority to ban certain especially hazardous substances, and it has banned the further production of PCBs and many uses of asbestos.

Both industry groups and consumer groups have attacked the TSCA. Industry groups criticize the act because the enforcement mechanism requires mountainous paperwork and leads to widespread delay. Consumer groups complain because the EPA has been slow to act against numerous chemical substances. The debate continues.

Pesticide Regulation

The United States is a major user of pesticides, substances that eliminate troublesome insects, rodents, fungi, and bacteria, consuming more than a billion pounds a year in the form of thirty-five thousand separate chemicals. As useful as they can be, like many chemical substances, pesticides can have serious side effects on humans and plant and animal life. Beginning in the early 1970s, Congress enacted major amendments to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1947 and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1906.

These laws direct the EPA to determine whether pesticides properly balance effectiveness against safety. If the pesticide can carry out its intended function without causing unreasonable adverse effects on human health or the environment, it may remain on the market. Otherwise, the EPA has authority to regulate or even ban its distribution and use. To enable the EPA to carry out its functions, the laws require manufacturers to provide a wealth of data about the way individual pesticides work and their side effects. The EPA is required to inspect pesticides to ensure that they conform to their labeled purposes, content, and safety, and the agency is empowered to certify pesticides for either general or restricted use. If a pesticide is restricted, only those persons certified in approved training programs may use it. Likewise, under the Pesticide Amendment to the FFDCA, the EPA must establish specific tolerances for the residue of pesticides on feed crops and both raw and processed foods. The Food and Drug Administration (for agricultural commodities) and the US Department of Agriculture (for meat, poultry, and fish products) enforce these provisions.

Other Types of Environmental Controls

Noise Regulation

Under the Noise Regulation Act of 1972, Congress has attempted to combat a growing menace to US workers, residents, and consumers. People who live close to airports and major highways, workers who use certain kinds of machinery (e.g., air compressors, rock drills, bulldozers), and consumers who use certain products, such as power mowers and air conditioners, often suffer from a variety of ailments. The Noise Regulation Act delegates to the EPA power to limit “noise emissions” from these major sources of noise. Under the act, manufacturers may not sell new products that fail to conform to the noise standards the EPA sets, and users are forbidden from dismantling noise control devices installed on these products. Moreover, manufacturers must label noisy products properly. Private suits may be filed against violators, and the act also permits fines of up to $25,000 per day and a year in jail for those who seek to avoid its terms.

Radiation Controls

The terrifying effects of a nuclear disaster became frighteningly clear when the Soviet Union’s nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded in early 1986, discharging vast quantities of radiation into the world’s airstream and affecting people thousands of miles away. In the United States, the most notorious nuclear accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear utility in Pennsylvania in 1979, crippling the facility for years because of the extreme danger and long life of the radiation. Primary responsibility for overseeing nuclear safety rests with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but many other agencies and several federal laws (including the Clean Air Act; the Federal Water Pollution Control Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act; the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982; the CERCLA; and the Ocean Dumping Act) govern the use of nuclear materials and the storage of radioactive wastes (some of which will remain severely dangerous for thousands of years). Through many of these laws, the EPA has been assigned the responsibility of setting radiation guidelines, assessing new technology, monitoring radiation in the environment, setting limits on release of radiation from nuclear utilities, developing guidance for use of X-rays in medicine, and helping to plan for radiation emergencies.

Key Takeaway

Laws limiting the use of one’s property have been around for many years; common-law restraints (e.g., the law of nuisance) exist as causes of action against those who would use their property to adversely affect the life or health of others or the value of their neighbors’ property. Since the 1960s, extensive federal laws governing the environment have been enacted. These include laws governing air, water, chemicals, pesticides, solid waste, and nuclear activities. Some laws include criminal penalties for noncompliance.


  1. Who is responsible for funding CERCLA? That is, what is the source of funds for cleanups of hazardous waste?
  2. Why is it necessary to have criminal penalties for noncompliance with environmental laws?
  3. What is the role of states in setting standards for clean air and clean water?
  4. Which federal act sets up a “cradle-to-grave” system for handling waste?
  5. Why are federal environmental laws necessary? Why not let the states exclusively govern in the area of environmental protection?