Last week I was browsing videos on YouTube and watched a few that were all about Earth day. One of the things they covered in the videos was the role of environmental laws and how they impact things that we do over the course of our day-to-day lives. This made me want to learn more, so I asked: what are the types of environmental law?
Three primary types of environmental law focus on air pollution, water pollution, and toxic substances. These are regulated by the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Other environmental laws focus on natural resource management and conservation. The focus of these laws is to uphold the rights that U.S. citizens have to access essential environmental resources.
Pollutant Environmental Law
The majority of environmental law focuses on pollutants that are created and released into the environment. These pollutants can come from manufacturing facilities, businesses, or individual human activities.
The regulations around pollutant laws focus on reducing the number of pollutants created and limiting the number of pollutants entering the air or water.
The three primary acts that regulate pollutant environmental law are:
- The Clean Air Act
- The Clean Water Act
- The Toxic Substances Control Act
The Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. This act regulates emissions from both stationary and mobile sources, creating standards for the maximum amount of air pollution that is permitted. The Clean Air Act applies to both motor vehicles and factories by covering both stationary and mobile sources.
The direct result of the Clean Air Act was the creation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). These standards establish the maximum amount of air pollutants that can be generated by specific sources, such as automobiles, manufacturing centers, and even office buildings. The goal behind the standards was to address the public health and welfare risks associated with high levels of air pollutants.
The NAAQS are implemented on a state-by-state level, with each state being responsible for the development of its own plan to lower the air pollutants in their respective state. These State Implementation Plans (SIPs) primarily focused on industrial sources of air pollution.
The Clean Air Act is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They monitor whether or not the State Implementation Plans have been followed and if the NAAQS have been met. They perform additional monitoring and investigations when there have been complaints lodged that allege the violation of the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act covers quite a wide swath of air pollutants, including:
- Acid Rain
- Asbestos Demolition and Renovation
- Mobile Sources of Pollutants (cars, trucks, trains, motorcycles, boats, etc.)
- Ozone Depleting Substances (CFSs)
- Air Toxins
- Wood Heaters
The Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 and was an outgrowth of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. It focuses on regulating how pollutants are discharged into the water and on quality standards for surface waters, such as lakes, streams, and oceans. It is the primary federal law that covers all issues pertaining to water pollution of any type.
One significant accomplishment of the Clean Water Act was establishing regulations around how, when, and where pollutants can be discharged into navigable water sources, like rivers or lakes.
Most industrial pollutants must go through a pretreatment process that makes them less hazardous to the water and the associated wildlife. It also requires companies to acquire a permit that dictates how to discharge their pollutants.
The Environmental Protection Agency is again responsible for monitoring the types and amounts of pollutants that are discharged into the water. This monitoring is broken down into several smaller focus areas, including:
- Municipal Wastewater Management
- Stormwater Overflows
- Pretreatment of Pollutants
- Discharge from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
- Oil Spills and Spill Prevention
The Toxic Substances Control Act
The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976. It created regulations around the reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements of chemical substances or mixtures. It’s important to note that this act does not include food, drugs, cosmetics, or pesticides, which are all governed by different pieces of legislation.
The Environmental Protection Agency reviews and monitors any toxic substances that are purchased, manufactured, processed, or distributed. They also monitor the facilities where these substances are processed or used. Specific areas that the EPA focuses on include:
- Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
- Lead-based Paints
Additionally, the EPA also closely monitors the creation of new chemical substances. They review the substances to determine their toxicity level and the facilities producing these new chemicals to determine that all standards are being met.
Other Types of Environmental Law
Although the primary types of environmental law focus on pollution via the air, water, and toxic substances, there are a few other practice areas. Many of these intersect with other practice areas, such as energy law, civil rights, social justice, and land use.
Natural resources laws protect the land and its resources, including water, minerals, lumber, oil, and wildlife. They emphasize both the overuse and misuse of these resources that could lead to resource sustainability issues in the future. Natural resource laws often intersect with land use laws, especially as they relate to ensuring the long-term sustainability of resources and wildlife.
Land use laws focus primarily on how the land is used and ensuring that this use doesn’t irreparably harm the land in a way that will cause future problems. You can find land use laws in any town or city and the zoning and city planning requirements. The practice of land use laws also includes creating more sustainable cities with fewer emissions of pollutants into the air or water systems.
Environmental justice law practice sits at the junction of the environment, civil rights, and social justice. It emphasizes how environmental risks are more likely to seriously impact disadvantaged groups and low-income neighborhoods. Environmental justice laws often interact with land use laws in regards to zoning and city planning.
Food law focuses on how the food we eat is grown, transported, and processed. Food law can interact with all of the pollution regulations depending on what type of food is in question and how it is grown or raised. Additionally, lawyers who practice food law can focus on litigation against companies that may be growing food in a way that is harmful to human health.
Why Are These Environmental Laws Important?
Environmental laws and the practice of environmental law focus on protecting the rights of citizens to basic natural resources, such as clean air and water. These are resources that are used by all people and are unique in that the actions of one person can have a significant impact on the rights of another person.
Environmental laws can often be at odds with economic development, leading to ethical questions on whether it’s more important to protect the environment or promote business and economic development. Environmental laws offer an opportunity for checks and balances to help ensure that new economic development does not entirely obliterate the environment.
What Type of Training Is Needed to Practice Environmental Law?
For those aspiring to practice environmental law, the first step is to graduate from law school and pass the Bar Exam to become a licensed attorney. They should focus on taking any elective classes that focus on environmental law during law school. They should also consider finding internships or clerkships with an environmental law firm to better understand how the practice of environmental law is applied in real-life situations.
Many practicing environmental lawyers also have a scientific background that helps them better understand the complicated scientific principles and languages that are used every day in environmental law. For some, this may include getting an advanced degree (either a Master’s or Ph.D.) in biology, chemistry, environmental science, or biochemistry.
What Types of Environment Law Jobs Are Available?
Licensed attorneys can practice environmental law in a variety of settings, including local, state, and governmental agency positions. These positions can involve working directly with the public when complaints are registered, or working to monitor the pollution created by businesses.
Governmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency also rely on a large staff to carefully monitor and report how companies mitigate and release pollutants. Many of these positions require a scientific background but may not need a law degree.
They can also work for non-profit organizations focused on reducing the number of pollutants created and monitoring how they are released into the environment. Many of these organizations operate on the local level and often involve grass-root campaigns.
Attorneys can also work for the companies and corporations that are creating pollutants and toxic substances, providing in-house counsel on understanding and following the complex system of regulations. These attorneys can also offer support when any type of incident breaches the environmental regulations, such as an oil spill or chemical leak.
Environmental law also relies on lots of people who are not licensed attorneys. At a law firm, this can include paralegals in environmental law. Consultants are also used frequently, especially when a law firm needs to focus on a specific area of environmental law that is highly technical and scientific.