Federal environmental law is complex. It regulates many different things from protecting endangered species, to the production of energy and from protecting the water that we drink, to protecting the air that we breathe. The many different complicated laws that make up federal environmental law are inevitably broken from time to time. Some laws are broken by accident and others are broken with blatant disregard for the law. The severities of the violations also differ significantly. Thus, there are different procedures and penalties for different violations of environmental law.
EPA Environmental Violation and Threats
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generally classifies breaches of environmental law into two different categories: violations and threats. An environmental violation is something that violates environmental law or regulation. It could include for example: improper emissions, the improper treatment of hazardous waste, or the improper dredging of wetlands. While the cumulative effects of environmental violations can be significant and hazardous to the environment or public health, it is unlikely that an individual breach will cause an immediate threat to public safety.
However, an environmental threat, as defined by the EPA, is likely to cause a sudden threat to public health or to the environment. An environmental threat may include things such as an oil spill, radiological discharge, or a significant accident causing pollution.
Reporting Common Environmental Violations and Threats
The most common types of environmental threats include oil spills, chemical spills, radiation emergencies, or biological threats. Anyone who has knowledge of an environmental threat that is likely to cause a sudden threat to public health or to the environment should call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. The National Response Center is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by U.S. Coast Guard officers and marine science technicians. The National Response Center will activate the National Contingency Plan so that the federal government can respond to the incident.
An environmental violation should not be reported to the National Response Center. Instead, a person who needs to report an environmental violation should either contact their local government environmental office, state environmental protection office or fill out the appropriate form on the EPA’s website. There are many types of environment violations, including improper trash disposal of things like paint, pesticides or chemicals, littering, improper emissions from motor vehicles, unpermitted dredging of wetlands, and polluted water.
While all violations of environmental law have the potential to be significant, and can result in penalties imposed by the government, the EPA has made an important distinction between violations that could be an immediate threat to public safety or do immediate and substantial harm to the environment and violations that may not have an immediate or substantial effect on public health or the environment.
For further information about the different types of environmental law violations and what you should do if you learn of an environmental violation or threat, contact your local, state or federal environmental protection office. Officials can help you determine the nature of the problem, the potential effect of the problem on public health and the environment, and the potential penalties faced by the violation of federal environmental law.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.