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What is Environmental Legislation? - Laws, Regulations & Timeline

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  • 0:05 The Environment
  • 0:47 Environmental Legislation
  • 2:14 Environmental…
  • 3:31 National Environmental…
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Environmental legislation is a collection of many laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment from harmful actions. Learn about the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws.

The Environment

It feels good to step outside and breathe a big breath of fresh air. Having clean air, clean water and an environment free of toxins and pollutants has always been a desire of man. But, prior to the 1970s, there were few mechanisms in place to protect the environment and the natural resources found within the United States of America. Mounting concerns about air, water and land quality led to environmental legislation designed to protect the environment from harmful actions. In this lesson, we will learn about some groundbreaking laws and discuss how government regulations safeguard the health of our natural world.

Environmental Legislation

Environmental legislation is the collection of laws and regulations pertaining to air quality, water quality, the wilderness, endangered wildlife and other environmental factors. The umbrella of environmental legislation covers many laws and regulations, yet they all work together toward a common goal, which is regulating the interaction between man and the natural world to reduce threats to the environment and increase public health.

As you might imagine, environmental legislation is a broad topic, mainly because the natural environment encompasses so many different aspects. So, environmental laws need to consider everything, from the air we breathe to the natural resources we rely on to the plants and animals that share this world with us.

To better understand environmental law, let's look at an example. Let's say that an energy company wants to build a coal-burning power plant to create electricity for the community. Where should this power plant be built? What type of pollutants might result from the coal burning, and what measures will need to be taken to control harmful emissions? If the power plant is built at the edge of town to lessen air pollution for the human population, how will this impact lesser species that inhabit the land downwind of the plant? These are all considerations to be evaluated within the scope of environmental law.

Environmental Legislation Timeline

Debates over how to preserve air and water quality are not new. These topics, along with many other environmental issues, have been subjected to laws for thousands of years. There's evidence of early Roman law regarding the handling of water and sewage. In fact, it is speculated that the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did because they paid so much attention to sewage networks and extensive freshwater distribution channels.

However, the official timeline of environmental law in the United States did not start until the 20th century. The United States is regarded as a world leader when it comes to development and application of environmental law, and the 1960s are when the process got started.

This time period in U.S. history was marked by a surge in economic and industrial growth. Along with an increase in factories and industrial activities, came a mounting concern about the impact these practices were having on the earth's natural environment. This was also a time when environmentalism, which is a movement toward protecting the natural environment against hazards and pollutants, matured into a public and political force. The new-found awareness and events of the 1960s coalesced to establish the start of environmental legislation.

National Environmental Policy Act

The cornerstone of environmental law is the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA). This is the U.S. environmental law that established a nation-wide policy promoting the protection of the environment. This act of 1969 was formed to encourage a harmonious relationship between the nation's citizens and their natural surroundings with the goal of preventing destruction of the environment.

The National Environmental Policy Act ensures that matters important to the environment are thoroughly considered in any decisions made by federal agencies. With the act came new procedural requirements for all federal agencies, including an environmental impact statement (or EIS), which is a document required for any actions that may significantly impact the environment. An EIS provides an analysis of the environmental impact of a proposed action - such as a proposal to build a coal-burning electric power plant as we discussed earlier. An environmental impact statement may also propose alternative actions to aid in the decision process and ensures that the goals of the National Environmental Policy Act are being followed.

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