The first federal environmental law is the River and Harbors Act of 1889. The Clean Water Act revised much of the Harbors Act. The Act made it a crime to introduce waste into navigable waters without a permit. The law also made it a misdemeanor to alter a harbor or waterfront or otherwise alter a waterway by filling it or excavating it.
Other significant pieces of federal environmental legislation include:
Clean Air Act
Clean Water Act
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
Endangered Species Act
National Environmental Policy Act
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
As environmental laws progressed, lawmakers addressed the issue of standing. Individuals no longer need to be personally aggrieved in order to bring a claim to stop environmental contamination. Changes in laws have led to landmark legal actions like the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission which stopped a power plant from operating. The court ruled that a group of citizens have standing in court to challenge a development because of environmental concerns.
Environmental regulation is a topic of international discussion and debate. International governments grapple with how to effectively regulate pollution and use of natural resources on an international scale. As environmental regulations can be a hot-button topic among local, state and national governments, environmental regulations and the use of natural resources are controversial issues between governments.
One of the first international summits on environmental issues was the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit followed. The Summit produced the Rio Declaration. In the Rio Declaration, signatory states said that humans should develop the earth in a way that meets developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.
State-level environmental regulations
Even though there are federal laws and international agreements regarding environmental law, there are also a great deal of state and local laws regarding the environment. Each state has an agency to manage and regulate natural resources in the state. They set regulations on how people can hunt and fish. Most states also have an agency for regulating environmental quality.
A practice in controversy
Environmental laws are controversial. Lawmakers must debate the necessity, fairness and cost-effectiveness of environmental regulations. It’s often difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulations, because it can be difficult to calculate the cost of a regulation. Even when you can calculate the cost of a regulation, people may have a great deal of disagreement about the benefits of regulation.