In the 1970s, the United States passed three major pieces of legislation which, together, make up the foundation of American environmental law: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. The urgency to pass all of these acts stemmed from the fact that building at a massive scale and industrial production had wreaked havoc on the environment—with disastrous implications for public health and the future. At its most basic level, the practice of Environmental Law involves protecting the American people from the environmental impacts these and other subsequent laws were enacted to prevent.
One of the challenges of effective environmental policy in the United States is the means of enforcement. Environmental laws are enforced by agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency), which have broad powers to study and investigate environmental impacts and punish those responsible, but which are not always able to exercise those powers effectively.
The problem is that those powers—and the policies the EPA and other agencies pursue—are often limited by politics, by funding and staff levels, and by a philosophy of encouraging companies to remediate environmental damage over time rather than slapping them with crippling punishments. That means that many cases of severe pollution go undiscovered, sometimes for decades. In a recent Propublica series, for example, investigative reporters looked at air and water pollution in the American Southeast and discovered that in rural parts of the country polluters routinely violate emissions standards and their regulations with little or no penalty.
That’s where environmental lawyers come in. If you’ve been impacted by toxins or pollutants in your environment, calling the EPA is a reasonable first step. But it’s not one that’s likely to lead to a speedy resolution, relief for the damages you’ve experienced, or meaningful change. That comes through environmental lawyers bringing legal action against the individuals, companies, and even government agencies that adversely impact the air, water, and land we all share.