What is Environmental Law?

Environmental law is the collection of laws, regulations, agreements and common law that governs how humans interact with their environment. The purpose of environmental law is to protect the environment and create rules for how people can use natural resources. Environmental laws not only aim to protect the environment from harm, but they also determine who can use natural resources and on what terms. Laws may regulate pollution, the use of natural resources, forest protection, mineral harvesting and animal and fish populations.

Early environmental laws
Environmental laws are relatively new in American history. Lawmakers began to pass environmental laws in the twentieth century. The environmental movement began to pick up pace in the 1960s with the majority of environmental laws and regulations being created since that time.

The first environmental laws focused on nuisance. When one person’s use of their property interferes with another person’s use of their own property, courts can step in to stop the nuisance. Nuisance laws largely developed through common law decisions in the courts. The laws protect a property owner from having another person or corporation infringe on their right to enjoy their own property. Early environmental laws didn’t focus on protecting the environment as a whole. They also didn’t give standing for a person to sue a polluter if they weren’t personally harmed by the other person’s actions.

What do environmental laws regulate?
Environmental laws cover a wide range of topics including the following:

Air Quality – Air quality laws protect the air from pollution and may include measures to protect the air from things like ozone depletion.

Water Quality – Environmental laws may protect water from pollution. They may also determine who can use water and how to handle potential problems like treating waste water and managing surface run off.

Waste Management – Municipal waste, hazardous substances and nuclear waste all fall in the category of waste management.

Contaminant Cleanup – Not all environmental law focuses on preventing pollution. Contaminant cleanup deals with addressing pollution after it happens. Laws may include protocols for cleanup as well as civil and criminal punishment for polluters.

Chemical Safety – Chemical safety regulations manage things like pesticide use and chemicals in products like plastic bottles.

Hunting and fishing – Environmental laws may regulate and protect wildlife populations. Lawmakers determine who can hunt and fish and how these activities are regulated.

Environmental law is administrative law
A great deal of environmental law enforcement takes place through administrative law. The EPA might investigate a violation and bring an administrative action to their own officials. Lawyers represent the EPA at these hearings, and they represent the people and corporations who are accused of violating rules. Those who are found responsible for violating the rules may appeal the decision to the courts. Most violations are a civil offense, but there are also criminal penalties for serious offenders.