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Environmental law is the branch of the law concerned with the protection of land, air, and water resources. Environmental laws have many different goals and focuses, but they primarily regulate the actions of large entities, like corporations and municipalities.
Environmental laws are generally the result of congressional action, and some originate from environmental disasters. One of the most salient examples is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill resulted in millions of gallons of oil being spilled into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. One of the immediate effects of the incident was the severe loss of animal life. Well over 100,000 seabirds lost their lives as a result of the oil spill. In addition, sea otters, river otters and bald eagles also lost their lives. In the long-term, the spill caused a significant change to the ecosystem of Prince William Sound.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was a direct response to this oil spill and put greater responsibility on companies that cause spills. It also required that companies create plans to prevent and contain spills before drilling on new sites. The OPA resulted in the funding of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and also required that ships be built with double hulls instead of single hulls.
Other examples of environmental laws include the Clean Air Act, which regulates air pollutants, and the Endangered Species Act, which focuses on protecting endangered plant and animal species and their habitats. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires companies to report on the use and release of hazardous chemicals and helps communities to plan for emergencies involving hazardous substances.
At the national level, the executive agency responsible for protecting the environment is the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA came into being in 1970 as a result of an executive order by then-president Richard Nixon. The primary role of the EPA is to ensure compliance through environmental assessments, prevention programs and enforcement measures like sanctions and fines.
For example, the EPA helps to ensure that car manufacturers are honest about fuel-efficiency levels and that they produce vehicles that adhere to the most current fuel-economy standards. Manufacturers whose vehicles fail to meet these standards can face severe fines and penalties.
One of the drawbacks to the EPA is that it typically only handles public violations. Generally, the EPA will not prosecute those who commit acts that pollute an individual’s personal property. Private rights of action exist for these very issues, however. For example, tort law applies to private pollution, which might involve neighbors throwing toxic garbage onto a private property or large corporations taking actions that affect individuals.
In addition, large groups of people can bring class-action suits against private corporations or municipalities that negatively affect their environment. One well-known example is the case of Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric, made famous in the film Erin Brockovich. In this case, the citizens of Hinkley, California, filed a class-action suit against Pacific Gas and Electric for alleged groundwater contamination. These lawsuits are generally very complicated and labor-intensive as individuals must prove a causal relationship between the alleged violation and the health, property, or monetary loss.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified environmental lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local environmental attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.