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What Is Environmental Law? - Principles, Issues & Policy

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  • 0:01 What Is Environmental Law?
  • 1:15 Federal Environmental…
  • 3:21 United States v. Dion (1986)
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

Environmental law involves a series of laws, policies and procedures enforced by various agencies with the goal of protecting the environment. Environmental law often overlaps other laws to act as an extra layer of legal protection.

What Is Environmental Law?

Polluted air, chemical spills and harmful use of land are only a few examples of how industry can have a negative impact on our natural environment. Environmental law establishes protection for our scarce natural resources and natural surroundings, like land, air and water. It may seem like people have been concerned about industrial effects on the environment for only a short period of time.

Would you believe that way back in 1671, South Carolina's Colonial Assembly passed a law that stated, 'Should any person cause to flow into or be cast into any of the creeks, streams or inland waters of this State any impurities that are poisonous to fish or destructive to their spawn, such person shall, upon conviction, be punished.'

Federal law was passed as early as 1899, making it illegal to pollute waterways. Since that time, federal environmental law advanced to address modern issues, like air pollution and even bald eagles and endangered animal species. States and local ordinances are also in place; however, federal law overrides all lower laws and ordinances.

Federal Environmental Laws and Acts

Let's take a look at a timeline of Federal environmental laws and acts.

1965: The Solid Waste Disposal Act prohibited open waste dumpsites and set criteria for what is considered solid waste.

1969: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states that all government branches must consider the environment when developing land into airports, military bases and government buildings. Environmental Impact Analysis and Statements were required prior to and during the construction of any government-owned facility.

1970: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and its mission is to protect the health of both people and the environment by creating and establishing laws and regulations for both businesses and individuals.

1970: The Clean Air Act was created to protect and regulate air quality by monitoring pollution from vehicles and factories.

1972: The Clean Water Act was added and regulates the amount and kind of pollutants that can be released into water.

1974: The Safe Drinking Water Act ensures that drinking water is clean and free from contaminants.

1976: The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act controls hazardous waste from its development to how it is stored and disposed of and oversees waste management and encourages recycling of trash.

1980: The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act is a fund that helps offset the cost of cleanups from disasters like oil spills.

1990: The Pollution Prevention Act focuses on production and use of raw materials, recycling and reducing waste.

While the timeline takes us through some of the most important federal laws that apply to water, air and land, there are also laws that protect wildlife. Let's look at a case involving bald eagles and American Indians.

United States v. Dion (1986)

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to hunt and kill bald or golden eagles by any person for any reason without express government permission. The Endangered Species Act is similar but expands to include protection for any endangered species from being hunted and killed.

In United States v. Dion, Dwight Dion, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota was charged with hunting, killing and selling parts of bald eagles and whole bald eagle carcasses.

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