Environmental Law is a patchwork of laws and regulations designed to protect the environment. Federal, state and local statutes as well as common law and case law impact this area.
Environmental law has its roots in common law. In the early years of United States history, common law gave citizens the right to protect themselves from nuisance or harm, yet development and expansion were the focus, with very little effort made by the government to regulate any form of capital enterprise. The conservationist mentality was given a voice by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th century and this movement was popularized by the turn of the century by John Muir. An outdoorsman and friend of Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt held the protection of the American wilderness among his favorite causes. President Roosevelt nearly quadrupled the national forest area and doubled the number of state parks during his tenure.
Public health also advanced in early years of the 20th Century with the U.S. Public Heath Services' (PHS) work in preventing waterborne illnesses, and then later in setting standards for air quality in the industrial workplace.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the booming industrial environment was producing conspicuous pollution. Common law became an unwieldy way for protecting against environmental grievances. Federal programs and agencies were established to research water and air quality standards. These endeavors were focused more on public health than on ecology.
Ecology gained momentum by 1970 with the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (42 U.S.C. §§4321–4347), the initial celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A number of other environmental laws followed in the 1970s including, The Clean Air Act (CAA) (42 U.S.C. §7401 et seq.), Clean Water Act (CWA) (33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq.), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (7 U.S.C. §136;16 U.S.C. §460 et seq.), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) (7 U.S.C. §135 et seq.), The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) (29 U.S.C. §651 et seq.), The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) (42 U.S.C. §6901 et seq.), The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) (42 U.S.C. § 300f et seq.), and The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (15 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.). Additional laws followed in the 1980s, including the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) (42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq.), The Emergency Planning & Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA) (42 U.S.C. § 11001 et seq.), and the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act.
The EPA's mission is to protect human health and the environment. The Agency develops and enforces environmental regulations, and leads the country's environmental research, education, science and assessment undertakings.
In addition to federal environmental laws and regulations, numerous state and local laws have been enacted. For instance, California has been at the forefront in trying to protect against pollution.
In the courts, the issue of "standing" relating to who has a right to bring a suit has been an important question in environmental law. In Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife 504 U.S. 555 (1991) the United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue of standing in the context of the Endangered Species Act.