Major Environmental Laws
We depend on many different laws to protect the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the biodiversity that surrounds us. Most of these laws work to negotiate a balance between the differing interests and needs of various groups, or between private interests and the public interest. In this section we’ll examine some of our most important environmental policies.
NEPA (1969) establishes public oversight
The cornerstone of U.S. environmental policy is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, NEPA is a model for many other countries.
It does three important things:
(1) it establishes the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the oversight board for general environmental conditions,
(2) it directs federal agencies to take environmental consequences into account in decision making, and
(3) it requires that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be published for every major federal project that is likely to have an important effect on environmental quality.
NEPA doesn’t forbid environmentally destructive activities if they comply otherwise with relevant laws, but it requires that agencies admit publicly what they plan to do. If embarrassing information is revealed publicly, it becomes harder for agencies to ignore public opinion. An EIS can provide valuable information about government actions to public interest groups that wouldn’t otherwise have access to these resources. What kinds of projects require an EIS? The activity must be federal and it must be major, with a significant environmental impact. Whether specific activities meet these characteristics is often a subjective decision. Each case is unique and depends on context, geography, the balance of beneficial versus harmful effects, and whether any areas of special cultural, scientific, or historical importance might be affected. A complete EIS for a project is usually time-consuming and costly. The final document is often hundreds of pages long and generally takes six to nine months to prepare. Sometimes just requesting an EIS is enough to sideline a questionable project. In other cases, the EIS process gives adversaries time to rally public opposition and information with which to criticize what’s being proposed. If agencies don’t agree to prepare an EIS voluntarily, citizens can petition the courts to force them to do so.
Every EIS must contain the following elements: (1) purpose and need for the project, (2) alternatives to the proposed action (including taking no action), (3) a statement of positive and negative environmental impacts of the proposed activities. In addition, an EIS should make clear the relationship between short-term resource effects and long-term productivity, as well as any irreversible impacts on resources resulting from the project.
Among the areas in which lawmakers have tried recently to ignore or limit NEPA include forest policy, energy exploration, and marine wildlife protection. The “Healthy Forest Initiative,”for example, called for bypassing EIS reviews for logging or thinning projects, and prohibited citizen appeals of forest management plans. Similarly, when the Bureau of Land Management proposed 77,000 coal-bed methane wells in Wyoming and Montana, promoters claimed that water pollution and aquifer depletion associated with this technology didn’t require environmental review
The Clean Air Act (1970) regulates air emissions
The first major environmental legislation to follow NEPA was the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970. Air quality has been a public concern since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when coal smoke, airborne sulfuric acid, and airborne metals such as mercury became common in urban and industrial areas around the world (fig. 15.6). Sometimes these conditions produced public health crises: One infamous event was the 1952 Great Smog of London, when several days of cold, still weather trapped coal smoke in the city and killed some 4,000 people from infections and asphyxiation. Another 8,000 died from respiratory illnesses in the months that followed. Although crises of this magnitude have been rare, chronic exposure to bad air has long been a leading cause of illness in many areas. The Clean Air Act provided the first nationally standardized rules in the United States to identify, monitor, and reduce air contaminants. The core of the act is an identification and regulation of seven major “criteria pollutants,” also known as “conventional pollutants.” These seven include sulfur oxides, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulates (dust), volatile organic compounds, and metals and halogens (such as mercury and bromine compounds). Most of these pollutants have declined dramatically since 1970. An exception is NOx, which derives from internal combustion engines such as those in our cars.
The Clean Water Act (1972) protects surface water
Water protection has been a goal with wide public support, in part because clean water is both healthy and an aesthetic amenity. The act aimed to make the nation’s waters “fishable and swimmable,” that is, healthy enough to support propagation of fish and shellfish that could be consumed by humans, and low in contaminants so that they were safe for swimming and recreation.
The first goal of the Clean Water Act (CWA) was to identify and control point source pollutants, end-of-the-pipe discharges from factories, municipal sewage treatment plants, and other sources. Discharges are not eliminated, but water at pipe outfalls must be tested, and permits are issued that allow moderate discharges of low-risk contaminants such as nutrients or salts. Metals, solvents, oil, high counts of fecal bacteria, and other more serious contaminants must be captured before water is discharged from a plant.
By the late 1980s, point sources were increasingly under control, and the CWA was used to address nonpoint sources, such as runoff from urban storm sewers. The act has also been used to promote watershed-based planning, in which communities and agencies collaborate to reduce contaminants in their surface waters. As with the CAA, the CWA provides funding to aid pollution-control projects. Those funds have declined in recent years, however, leaving many municipalities struggling to pay for aging and deteriorating sewage treatment facilities.
The Endangered Species Act (1973) protects wildlife
This act provides a structure for identifying and listing species that are vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. Once a species is listed as endangered, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides rules for protecting it and its habitat, ideally in order to help make recovery possible. Listing of a species has become a controversial process, because habitat conservation tends to get in the way of land development. For example, many ESA controversies arise when developers want to put new housing developments in scenic areas where the last remnants of a species occur. To reduce disputes, the ESA provides habitat and land-use planning assistance and grants, as well as guaranteeing landowner rights when an effective habitat conservation plan has been developed. Landowners can also get a tax reduction in exchange for habitat conservation. These strategies increasingly allow for both development and species protection. The ESA maintains a worldwide list of endangered species. In 2010 the list included 1,969 threatened and endangered species, 753 of them plants. The responsibility for studying and attempting to restore threatened and endangered species lies mainly with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Superfund Act (1980) lists hazardous sites
Most people know this law as the Superfund Act because it created a giant fund to help remediate abandoned toxic sites. The proper name of this law is informative, though: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The act aims to be comprehensive, addressing orphan sites, emergency spills, or uncontrolled contamination, and it allows the EPA to try to establish liability, so that polluters help to pay for cleanup. Because it’s much cheaper to make toxic waste than to clean it up, we have thousands of chemical plants, gas stations, and other sites that have been abandoned because they were too expensive to clean properly. The EPA is responsible for finding a private party to do cleanup, and the Superfund was established to cover the costs, which can be in the billions of dollars. Until recently, the fund was supplied mainly by contributions from industrial producers of hazardous wastes. In 1995, however, Congress voted to end that source, and the Superfund was allowed to dwindle to negligible levels. Since then, cleanup has been paid for by public taxpayers. According to the EPA, one in four Americans lives within 3 miles of a hazardous waste site. The Superfund program has identified more than 47,000 sites that may require cleanup. The most serious of these (or the most serious for which proponents have been sufficiently vigorous) have been put on a National Priorities List. About 1,600 sites have been put on this list, and over 1,000 cleanups have been completed. The total cost of remediation is thought to be something between $370 billion and $1.7 trillion.