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Environmental Law: A Beginner's Guide

Federal Laws

The U.S. Congress has passed significant legislation governing environmental law and policy. Below, you will find the more prominent pieces of legislation. If you wish to research the legislative history of these statutes, we recommend you review our research guide on federal legislative history, to help perform further research.

Clean Air Act (CAA)

According to the "Congressional findings and declaration of purpose" of the CAA, the Act was designed to "protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources" and to promote research and provide assistance to state and local governments in an effort to combat air pollution. The CAA is overseen by the EPA.

Clean Water Act (CWA)

The CWA's "Congressional declaration of goals and policy" states that the "objective of this chapter is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." The act provides for research, enforcement, and state assistance in efforts to curb water pollution. The CWA is overseen by the EPA.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)

CERCLA, also known as Superfund, is a law that placed a tax on certain businesses in industries engaged in work with hazardous materials. The purpose of the tax was to provide funding to clean up any hazardous materials disposal sites if those businesses no longer existed. CERCLA is overseen by the EPA.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The ESA governs the conservation of fauna in the United States. The "Policy" section of the ESA states that it is "the policy of Congress that all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species." The act further provides that members from various agencies are to be placed on a task force, but final determination of animals that satisfy listing as endangered species is made by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce. The ESA is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)

The MPRSA was passed to regulate dumping in the oceans. The "Congressional finding, policy, and declaration of purpose" section provides "it is the policy of the United States to regulate the dumping of all types of materials into ocean waters." The MPRSA further provides a framework for the regulation of dumping and enforcement of those regulations. The MPRSA is overseen by the EPA.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The passage of NEPA resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The "Congressional declaration of purpose" section at the beginning of the Act explains that NEPA's purpose is, "To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality." While the EPA is heavily involved with NEPA, the White House also appoints the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees the implementation of NEPA across all agencies.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

The RCRA was passed to regulate solid waste in the United States. In the "Congressional findings" section, it is further provided that due to the passage of other environmental laws and regulations (such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act) more solid waste was being created, and there needed to be more regulation on hazardous waste disposal. The RCRA is overseen by the EPA.