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Summary of Main US Environmental Laws
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Main US Environmental Laws

This section provides an overview of the main US environmental laws. We first broadly describe five major laws, the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act/Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (CERCLA/SARA).

Please note that the following summaries do not detail each program within each law, and do not discuss the original requirements of the law versus later amendments.

Clean Air Act
Primary objective - human health
Secondary objective - non health such as aesthetics, agriculture, etc.

The CAA divides the country into air quality regions. The CAA also sets goals for the concentration of various pollutants in the ambient (surrounding) air. These goals are set so that the health risk from the various pollutants is essentially zero. The ambient air pollutants are CO, HCs, Pb, NOx, SOx, ozone, and particulates. The CAA established technology-based emission standards for specific industry categories (SICs). These standards specify the technology and the emission limits that are allowed for pollutants discharged to the air. The original focus of the CAA was on "point sources" of pollution, however the CAA does include technology requirements for mobile sources such as automobiles. The 1990 amendments added air toxics to the regulation. Air toxics are controlled by technology-based standards that are set for various industrial categories. There are no ambient air goals for air toxics.

Clean Water Act:
Primary objective - eliminate discharge of all pollutants
Secondary objective - restore and maintain the quality of the nation's waters so they are fishable and swimmable waters

The current trend is towards regions setting watershed specific goals for principal pollutants (oxygen demand, nutrients, pathogens, suspended solids, salts, toxic metals, toxic organics, heat, and pH). The CWA established technology-based effluent standards for specific industry categories. These standards specify the technology and effluent limits that should be used to treat wastewater prior to disposal in a water body. Originally this regulation provided federal funding for the construction of secondary wastewater treatment plants for municipal wastewater. The original focus was on industrial point sources of pollution, however the 1987 amendments added requirements for the control of non point source pollution such as agricultural and urban runoff.

Safe Drinking Water Act:
Primary objective - ensure potable water (safe for human health)
Secondary objective - ensure palatable water (aesthetics such as taste, color, odor)
Tertiary objective - protect the quality of underground sources of water

The SDWA has four categories of standards that water suppliers must meet. The categories are physical, chemical, microbiological, and radiological. The physical standards include guidelines for total solids, suspended solids, dissolved solids, turbidity, color, tastes, odors, and temperature. These are nonenforceable standards aimed at improving palatability of the water supply.

The chemical standards set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for various chemical contaminants. These MCLS must be met and are enforceable. The SDWA also sets more stringent maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) that are not enforceable. Similarly, there are MCLs, MCLGs, and technology standards for microbiological contaminants. And, there are MCLs and MCLGs for radiological contaminants.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act/Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments:
Objective - manage the generation, storage, transport, treatment and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes from operating facilities, and minimize waste disposal to land

RCRA/HSWA is divided up into various sections that regulate various activities. One section details how a waste can be characterized as a solid waste and as a hazardous waste. Another section details a tracking framework for hazardous waste that includes a paper trail from the time the waste is generated to when it is finally disposed. Another section details requirements for facilities that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste. These requirements must be met before a facility is granted a permit to operate. Another section details requirements for the design of solid waste landfill facilities. Another section specifies how the various hazardous wastes must be treated before disposal. Additional sections exist for special issues such as underground storage tanks.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act/Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act:

Objective - clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and spills, and provide for community right-to-know of industrial waste management practices

CERCLA/SARA establishes a fund (known as Superfund) that provides money to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites that pose a significant risk. The fund is based on taxes assessed to the chemical and petroleum industry. Sites are eligible for these funds if they pose enough risk to be included on the National Priorities List (NPL). CERCLA/SARA also establishes a National Contingency Plan that details emergency response information for chemical spills. The law details the cleanup procedure (Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study) that is to be used for abandoned hazardous waste sites. And, the law establishes a liability framework that provides for strict, joint, and several liability for the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites. In addition to cleanup, CERCLA/SARA has a community right-to-know provision. This provision known as SARA Title III or the Toxics Release Inventory requires industry to report bienially the emissions and management of regulated chemicals.

More recently, the emphasis in environmental regulations has been on voluntary pollution prevention activities that prevent/reduce the waste from being generated in the first place. The 1990 Pollution Prevention Act describes a waste management hierarchy that prefers waste management techniques in the following order from most preferred to least preferred:

  • Reduction
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Treatment/transformation
  • Disposal

Table X.X below gives the EPA's summaries of main environmental laws when available, and our own brief descriptions when summaries are not available. We also provide links to many of the full-text articles, available either from the EPA or from Cornell University's Legal Information Institute.

Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act 1947

The primary focus of FIFRA was to provide federal control of pesticide distribution, sale, and use. EPA was given authority under FIFRA not only to study the consequences of pesticide usage but also to require users (farmers, utility companies, and others) to register when purchasing pesticides.
Through later amendments to the law, users also must take exams for certification as applicators of pesticides. All pesticides used in the U.S. must be registered (licensed) by EPA. Registration assures that pesticides will be properly labeled and that if in accordance with specifications, will not cause unreasonable harm to the environment.

Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act)

Growing public awareness and concern for controlling water pollution led to enactment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. As amended in 1977, this law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act. The Act established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States. It gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. The Clean Water Act also continued requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters. The Act made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions. It also funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program and recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.
Subsequent enactments modified some of the earlier Clean Water Act provisions. Revisions in 1981 streamlined the municipal construction grants process, improving the capabilities of treatment plants built under the program. Changes in 1987 phased out the construction grants program, replacing it with the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, more commonly known as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This new funding strategy addressed water quality needs by building on EPA-State partnerships.

Full text of the Clean Water Act

Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act is the comprehensive Federal law that regulates air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources. This law authorizies the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect public health and the environment.
The goal of the Act was to set and achieve NAAQS in every state by 1975. The setting of maximum pollutant standards was coupled with directing the states to develop state implementation plans (SIP's) applicable to appropriate industrial sources in the state.
The Act was amended in 1977 primarily to set new goals (dates) for achieving attainment of NAAQS since many areas of the country had failed to meet the deadlines. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act in large part were intended to meet unaddressed or insufficiently addressed problems such as acid rain, ground-level ozone, stratospheric ozone depletion, and air toxics.
Full text of the Clean Air Act

Shoreline Erosion Protection Act

Solid Waste Disposal Act

Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act provides specifically that "any person" can make requests for government information. Citizens who make requests are not required to identify themselves or explain why they want the information they have requested. The position of Congress in passing FOIA was that the workings of government are "for and by the people" and that the benefits of government information should be made available to everyone.
All branches of the Federal government must adhere to the provisions of FOIA with certain restrictions for work in progress (early drafts), enforcement confidential information, classified documents, and national security information.
Full text of the Freedom of Information Act
Occupational Safety and Health Act
Congress passed the Occupational and Safety Health Act to ensure worker and workplace safety. Their Goal was to make sure employers provide their workers a place of employment free from recognized hazards to safety and health, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions.
In order to establish standards for workplace health and safety, the Act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH ) as the research institution for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA ). OSHA is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor that oversees the administration of the Act and enforces standards in all 50 states.
Full text of the Occupational Safety and Health Act
National Environmental Policy Act
The National Environmental Policy Act was one of the first laws ever written that establishes the broad national framework for protecting our environment. NEPA's basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.
NEPA requirements are invoked when airports, buildings, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases, and other federal activities are proposed. Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs), which are assessments of the likelihood of impacts from alternative courses of action, are required from all Federal agencies and are the most visible NEPA requirements.
Full text of the National Environmental Policy Act

Pollution Prevention Packaging Act

The Pollution Prevention Act focused industry, government, and public attention on reducing the amount of pollution through cost-effective changes in production, operation, and raw materials use. Opportunities for source reduction are often not realized because of existing regulations, and the industrial resources required for compliance, focus on treatment and disposal. Source reduction is fundamentally different and more desirable than waste management or pollution control.
Pollution prevention also includes other practices that increase efficiency in the use of energy, water, or other natural resources, and protect our resource base through conservation. Practices include recycling, source reduction, and sustainable agriculture.
Full text of the Pollution Prevention Act
Resource Recovery Act

Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act

Coastal Zone Management Act

Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act

Ocean Dumping Act

Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior maintains the list of 632 endangered species (326 are plants) and 190 threatened species (78 are plants).
Species include birds, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, crustaceans, flowers, grasses, and trees. Anyone can petition FWS to include a species on this list. The law prohibits any action, administrative or real, that results in a "taking" of a listed species, or adversely affects habitat. Likewise, import, export, interstate, and foreign commerce of listed species are all prohibited.
EPA's decision to register a pesticide is based in part on the risk of adverse effects on endangered species as well as environmental fate (how a pesticide will affect habitat). Under FIFRA, EPA can issue emergency suspensions of certain pesticides to cancel or restrict their use if an endangered species will be adversely affected. Under a new program, EPA, FWS, and USDA are distributing hundreds of county bulletins that include habitat maps, pesticide use elimitations, and other actions required to protect listed species.
Full text of the Endangered Species Act
Safe Drinking Water Act
The Safe Drinking Water Act was established to protect the quality of drinking water in the U.S. This law focuses on all waters actually or potentially designed for drinking use, whether from above ground or underground sources.
The Act authorized EPA to establish safe standards of purity and required all owners or operators of public water systems to comply with primary (health-related) standards. State governments, which assume this power from EPA, also encourage attainment of secondary standards (nuisance-related).
Full text of the Safe Drinking Water Act
Shoreline Erosion Control Demonstration Act

Hazardous Materials Transportation Act

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
RCRA (pronounced "rick-rah") gave EPA the authority to control hazardous waste from the "cradle-to-grave." This includes the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also set forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous wastes.
The 1986 amendments to RCRA enabled EPA to address environmental problems that could result from underground tanks storing petroleum and other hazardous substances. RCRA focuses only on active and future facilities and does not address abandoned or historical sites (see CERCLA).
HSWA (pronounced "hiss-wa")-The Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments are the 1984 amendments to RCRA that required phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste. Some of the other mandates of this strict law include increased enforcement authority for EPA, more stringent hazardous waste management standards, and a comprehensive underground storage tank program.
Full text of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
Toxic Substances Control Act
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was enacted by Congress to give EPA the ability to track the 75,000 industrial chemicals currently produced or imported into the United States. EPA repeatedly screens these chemicals and can require reporting or testing of those that may pose an environmental or human-health hazard. EPA can ban the manufacture and import of those chemicals that pose an unreasonable risk.
Also, EPA has mechanisms in place to track the thousands of new chemicals that industry develops each year with either unknown or dangerous characteristics. EPA then can control these chemicals as necessary to protect human health and the environment. TSCA supplements other Federal statutes, including the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Release Inventory under EPCRA
Full text of the Toxic Substances Control Act

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act

Uranium Mill-Tailings Radiation Control Act

Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and provided broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Over five years, $1.6 billion was collected and the tax went to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. CERCLA:
· established prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites;
· provided for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites; and
· established a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified.
The law authorizes two kinds of response actions:
· Short-term removals, where actions may be taken to address releases or threatened releases requiring prompt response.
· Long-term remedial response actions, that permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious, but not immediately life threatening. These actions can be conducted only at sites listed on EPA's National Priorities List (NPL).
CERCLA also enabled the revision of the National Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP provided the guidelines and procedures needed to respond to releases and threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. The NCP also established the NPL.
CERCLA was amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) on October 17, 1986.
U.S. House of Representatives U.S. Code - Title 42
Full text of CERCLA

Nuclear Waste Policy Act

Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act

Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act

Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act
Also known as Title III of SARA, EPCRA was enacted by Congress as the national legislation on community safety. This law was designated to help local communities protect public health, safety, and the environment from chemical hazards.
To implement EPCRA, Congress required each state to appoint a State Emergency Response Commission (SERC). The SERC's were required to divide their states into Emergency Planning Districts and to name a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) for each district.
Broad representation by fire fighters, health officials, government and media representatives, community groups, industrial facilities, and emergency managers ensures that all necessary elements of the planning process are represented.
Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act
The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) amended the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) on October 17, 1986. SARA reflected EPA's experience in administering the complex Superfund program during its first six years and made several important changes and additions to the program. SARA:
· stressed the importance of permanent remedies and innovative treatment technologies in cleaning up hazardous waste sites;
· required Superfund actions to consider the standards and requirements found in other State and Federal environmental laws and regulations;
· provided new enforcement authorities and settlement tools;
· increased State involvement in every phase of the Superfund program;
· increased the focus on human health problems posed by hazardous waste sites;
· encouraged greater citizen participation in making decisions on how sites should be cleaned up; and
· increased the size of the trust fund to $8.5 billion.
SARA also required EPA to revise the Hazard Ranking System (HRS) to ensure that it accurately assessed the relative degree of risk to human health and the environment posed by uncontrolled hazardous waste sites that may be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL).
U.S. House of Representatives U.S. Code - Title 42
Full text of SARA
Indoor Radon Abatement Act

Lead Contamination Control Act

Medical Waste Tracking Act

Ocean Dumping Ban Act

Shore Protection Act

National Environmental Education Act

Oil Pollution Act
The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 streamlined and strengthened EPA's ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills. A trust fund financed by a tax on oil is available to clean up spills when the responsible party is incapable or unwilling to do so. The OPA requires oil storage facilities and vessels to submit to the Federal government plans detailing how they will respond to large discharges. EPA has published regulations for aboveground storage facilities; the Coast Guard has done so for oil tankers. The OPA also requires the development of Area Contingency Plans to prepare and plan for oil spill response on a regional scale.
Full text of the Oil Pollution Act

Food Quality Protection Act

The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 amended the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). These amendments fundamentally changed the way EPA regulates pesticides. The requirements included a new safety standard-reasonable certainty of no harm-that must be applied to all pesticides used on foods. This web site provides background information on FQPA's provisions and discusses some of the specific issues raised by FQPA, as well as status of implementation of this important law.
Full text of the Food Quality Protection Act

Table X.X: Summaries of Main U.S. Environmental Laws.
*Source: US EPA (



  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.