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In 1968, a man named Garrett Hardin wrote an article called The Tragedy of the Commons. The premise of the article was that when people share a common resource, even if it is in everyone’s best interest to take care of that resource, the resource will get destroyed.

The Tragedy of the Commons isn’t just a myth; if we look at the amount of damage that has been inflicted on our planet by everyone from careless corporations to casual litterers, it’s clear that humans don’t take care of the earth unless compelled to do so.  In order to compel people to do so, in 1970, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency to help protect our shared planet.They also created a number of different environmental protection policies and regulations.

Environmental Protections and Regulations

  • Atomic Energy Act (AEA): The Atomic Energy Act regulates the use of Atomic Energy to ensure its used both safely and effectively. The Act was first passed in 1946, and gave civilians control over nuclear weapon development. The act was amended in 1954 to reinforce the need for civil control over the nuclear industry.
  • Clean Air Act (CAA):In 1955, the government passed the Air Pollution Act, declaring air pollution a danger to public health and safety. The ’55 Act put the United States Surgeon General in charge of researching and preventing air pollution.  In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Extension, which was followed by the Clean Air Act Amendments in ’77 and ’90. These updated clean air acts gave greater control to the Environmental Protection Agency, and addressed acid rain, ozone depletion, toxic air pollution and emissions trading. They also set standards to regulate gasoline.
  • Clean Water Act (CWA): The Clean Water Act is designed to minimize water pollution, and remove toxic substances from navigable waters. This means the Act controls pollution in all water that the US government has control over. Anyone that releases pollutants has to get a special permit from the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System before putting anything into the waterways. This Act also requires cities to have special “storm water discharges” to prevent pollutants from getting washed into the waters during rainstorms.
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA): This Act makes it possible for the EPA to clean up hazardous waste sites. If there is contaminated land, the EPA can clean up the land using money from the Superfund, and then try to get the money back from the current owner, or from anyone who may have been responsible for contaminating the land. The EPA can also require companies or other contaminators to clean up environmental hazards that they are responsible for creating.
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA): The EPCRA requires states and local governments to have a plan in place to alert citizens of chemical accidents. The local governing bodies are required to create emergency planning districts, and response plans including transportation routes and notification procedures.
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA): The Endangered Species Act protects endangered species by protecting their environments and ecosystems. Passed in 1973, the Act gave the Fish and Wildlife Authority the right to designate “critical habitats” that are required to protect species on the endangered list. No company, person or government is allowed to build anything that would put the species at risk.
  • Energy Policy Act: The Energy Policy Act was passed in 2005, as an update to the ’92 Act, to deal with the growing energy crisis. The Act sets up loans and incentives for companies and governments to identify alternative sources of energy. It authorized research into alternative energy, provided incentives for oil drilling, increased the amount of ethanol to be mixed with gasoline, and extended day-light savings time as of 2007. 
  • Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA): This Act, passed in 1938, gave the FDA the authority to ensure that our food and drugs are free of dangerous chemicals and harmful additives.
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA): This Act, modified in 1996, requires all pesticides used, sold, or distributed in the U.S. to be registered and licensed by the EPA. In order to be registered, the pesticide can’t have an unreasonably adverse impact on people or the environment. Unregistered pesticides are illegal.
  • Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act/Ocean Dumping Act (MPRSA): This Act, passed in 1998, precludes taking material out of the U.S. for the purposes of dumping it in the ocean. The Act also mandates that any material brought into the U.S. not be dumped into the waters without a permit. Permits are only granted if the material being dumped won’t endanger people, the water, or marine life.
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA):NEPA requires that the government think about the Environment before taking action. Passed in 1969, it requires the government to file environmental impact reports assessing possible damage to the environment, before doing any building.
  • National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA)This 1996 Act mandates that the government use privately developed technology standards when passing technology laws, if those standards make sense and protect the environment.
  • Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA): The NWPA addresses the appropriate disposal of nuclear waste. When the NWPA was passed in 1982, it created a schedule for establishing an underground storage facility for nuclear waste. In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was designated as the permanent repository for nuclear waste produced in the U.S. Bush affirmed this recommendation in 2002, but Nevada challenged this and the Supreme Court upheld their challenge. In 2009, Obama rejected the use of Yucca Mountain and the search for an appropriate nuclear waste storage site continues.
  • Occupational Safety and Health (OSH): OHSA is designed to protect occupational healthy and safety. The Act was passed in 1970 and created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). OSHA ensures that businesses create safe working environments for their employees, and that employers warn workers of hazards that can’t be eliminated. NIOSH does research on workplace safety, including ergonomic offices and the maximum safe levels of toxins.
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) : The RCRA, passed in 1965, set the standards for waste management. The Act had four goals: to protect people from unsafe waste disposal, to conserve the amount of land used to dispose of waste, to reduce the amount of garbage created, and to make sure the waste is managed in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment. Under the Act, waste management sites have to have permits, and landfills that don't meet safety standards are closed.
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA): The SDWA sets standards for safe drinking water and gives the EPA the authority to make sure states and water suppliers meet these standards. The SDWA sets maximum levels of contaminants that can appear in water, and requires that plumbing be free of lead. It does not apply to bottled water, which the FDA regulates.
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): This 1976 Act created a list of approved chemicals, and forbid people from manufacturing or importing chemicals that weren’t on that list. If someone wants to create or import a new chemical, they have to get EPA approval first. 

Getting Legal Help

If you suspect that a company, government agency, or person is violating any of these provisions, it is important to contact an attorney experienced in environmental protection litigation. These laws include protection for citizens who report employers who violate the law, and if you are in danger as a result of environmental abuse, you need to get help.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. If you need legal advice or representation,
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