From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, the United States passed several major laws in order to better protect our Earth and its environment. After the Industrial Revolution caused increasing environmental damage, the environmental movement era emerged. While in office, President Nixon passed a few of the most significant laws that would help protect the people of the U.S. and regenerate the environment’s health. So you may wonder, what are the main laws that protect the environment?
There are many laws that help us reduce environmental damage and regulate the use of resources that could cause negative effects to the Earth’s environment. Here is a short list of the main environmental laws passed by Congress:
- Clean Water Act (formerly known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948)
- Air Pollution Control Act
- Endangered Species Act
- National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
- Clean Air Act (CAA)
Triggered by the environmental movement, many of the acts previously stated were passed in the 1970’s which was a turning point for the United States and its mission to focus on the protection of the environment. The environmental movement was caused by increasing concerns over the impacts of the booming Industrial Revolution that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. Severe air pollution and waste dumped into the waterways of the U.S. was causing environmental disasters that affected the health of all living things on Earth.
Related: What are the Different Types of Environmental Law?
How Does the Clean Water Act Help Protect Our Environment?
The Clean Water Act (CWA) was originally known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this was the first major environmental law created by the U.S. set to address water pollution. In 1972, the law was amended to address the following:
- Creating a structure for regulating the amount of pollution released into U.S. waters
- Granting EPA the authority to enforce programs and standards that controlled pollution
- Prohibit any persons without a permit from discharging pollutants into navigable waters
- Funding of sewage treatment plants
These plans were set in place to decrease the amount of pollutants invading bodies of water in the United States in an effort to restore and maintain them. Before the Clean Water Act was established, the Industrial Revolution was causing major damage to the nation’s waterways. The Cuyahoga River located in Ohio caught fire in 1969 due to sparks from a passing train igniting oily debris. Thus the Clean Water Act was created by Congress in order to resolve the issue of water pollution.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act, water quality is controlled by monitoring pollutant discharge from point sources. Pollution from nonpoint sources caused by runoff is still a major problem as it is more difficult to control, but the law has helped decrease point sources such as discharge pipes from factories. The CWA has helped prevent billions of tons of pollutants from entering into the nation’s waterways and has been upheld by the EPA’s hygienic standards.
Related: 10 Types of Ocean Pollution (and the Laws that Fight Them!)
How the Air Pollution Control Act Was a Major Stepping Stone
Enacted in 1955, the Air Pollution Control Act (APCA) was a major stepping stone for environmental restoration. It was the first law passed by the legislature that involved air pollution. Its main purpose was to provide funds for research in air pollution. As a result, various laws were created as a response such as the Clean Air Act of 1963, which initiated air pollution control. A program within the U.S. Public Health Service was created in order to monitor and maintain air pollution.
To further monitor and control air pollutant emission, the Air Quality Act was established in 1967 followed by the enactment of the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 which helped increase the federal government’s involvement in air pollution control. The CAA was then amended in 1977 and 1990 to authorize various programs and extend control over toxic pollutants being released into the Earth’s atmosphere. Some examples of these provisions included:
- Authorization of programs such as the Prevention of Significant Deterioration and Acid Deposition Control
- Increased enforcements
- Authorization of control over motor vehicle emissions
- Establishing a program that would discontinue the use of chemicals that negatively affected the ozone layer
The creation of these laws and policies in relation to air pollution have helped reduce the risk of serious health effects in Americans by breathing in harmful pollutants. A significant role that the CAA plays is also the reduction of environmental damage by decreasing the risk of depleting the ozone layer which protects the Earth’s atmosphere from ultraviolet radiation.
Why the Endangered Species Act Is Important
In 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in order to prevent endangered and threatened species from becoming extinct. The extinction of plants and animals that play a major function in its ecosystem could cause a downward spiral of effects that negatively impact an entire ecosystem. Negative alterations to ecosystems have the ability to drastically affect the natural operations of the Earth’s environment. Because of the ESA, the population of hundreds of species has increased and conservation programs were facilitated in order to protect the endangered and threatened wildlife.
The Endangered Species Act authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement recovery plans that put endangered species under protection until it is no longer necessary. It is “the strongest law for protecting biodiversity” according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The ESA has a 99% success rate in protecting the plants and animals that are on the list which allows ecosystems to thrive naturally.
How Federal Agencies Are Required to Assess Environmental Effects
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was created in 1970 to help protect the environment by requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of their actions. This bill signed into law regulates actions of federal agencies in order to prevent further damage to the environment.
Actions covered by NEPA:
- Federal land management actions
- Publicly-owned facilities and highway construction
- Decision making on permit applications
NEPA allows for humans and nature to have a healthier relationship that co-exists and prevents proposal applications that negatively affect the environment from being approved. The process of this entails ensuring that an environmental analysis is made by an agency to assess how the actions could possibly affect the environment. If an agency were to propose an action that is proved to be harmful, then NEPA has the authority to deny the proposed action. This acts as a firewall to better serve the environment so that harmful actions can be impeded.
How the Clean Air Act Helps Protect the Environment
Enacted to regulate air emissions and protect public health, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was established in 1970 with the goal to address risks caused by air pollutants. This law permits the EPA to authorize National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in order to regulate hazardous pollutants.
The Clean Air Act helps the environment by:
- Address emerging pollution threats
- Local, state, and federal governments working together to implement clean air standards
- Developing programs to decrease air pollution that cause serious public and environmental health issues
According to the EPA, there has been a 50% decline in emissions of key air pollutants since 1990. Keeping the Earth’s air clean helps prevent the deterioration of the ozone layer and long-term effects that cause climate change. If such a law didn’t exist, the Earth and all things that inhabit it would have to battle environmental disasters caused by unnatural irregularities within the Earth’s atmosphere.
How Environmental Laws Work Together to Create a Healthier Environment
The Earth and its natural environmental processes are affected by human activity every single day. The Industrial Revolution sparked major concerns for the environment after it had become increasingly noticeable that human actions were negatively affecting the environment and public health. These effects led to disasters that endangered plants, animals, and humans. The environmental movement of the 1970’s encouraged Congress to pass numerous laws that would encourage a better environment and future for all living things.
As a result of these preventative actions, here is a list of accomplishments that environmental laws have made for the future of planet Earth.
- Reduction of air pollution that caused serious health effects and premature deaths
- Signs of recovery in the ozone layer; projected to recover within the next 50 years
- Increase in quality of the U.S. waterways
- Designated land area provided for the protection and recovery of endangered and threatened species to maintain the health of Earth’s fragile ecosystems
- Prevention of actions that could severely damage public health and Earth’s species
Related: Why is Environmental Law Important?
Without these laws in place, the Earth’s environment would continuously decline at a rapid pace. The Environmental Protection Agency has established major programs to better develop a safe and healthy environment for all living things that co-exist on Earth. With a budget of $9,237,153,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, the EPA works together with state, local, and federal agencies to further improve the well-being of the environment.
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The Endangered Species Act: A Wild Success. Center for Biological Diversity. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/esa_wild_success/
Endangered Species | Recovery: Overview. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (2020, December 29). Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/recovery-overview.html
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, July). EPA’s Budget and Spending. EPA. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/planandbudget/budget
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, December 7). Evolution of the Clean Air Act. EPA. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/evolution-clean-air-act
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, May 27). History of the Clean Water Act. EPA. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/history-clean-water-act
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, September 28). Summary of the Clean Air Act. EPA. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-air-act
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, November 16). What is the National Environmental Policy Act? EPA. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/nepa/what-national-environmental-policy-act