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Natural Resources/Environmental Law Overview

Environmental law deals with protecting natural resources and ecosystems. For the most part, the laws regulate activities that could damage or compromise the nation's natural resources. Several landmark federal and state statutes have been passed to safeguard water supplies, maintain air quality and protect endangered species. However, it is often left to the courts to interpret these laws and decide if a particular activity threatens the environment and should be curtailed. Attorneys who have experience in this area often work for nonprofit advocacy groups that initiate litigation against businesses or other entities that may have violated environmental laws and regulations. These issues may also arise in nuisance or trespass disputes between neighbors.

Federal Natural Resources/Environmental Laws

The federal government addressed environmental issues directly by enacting the National Environmental Policy Act in January 1970. This law created the Council on Environmental Quality as part of the executive branch and required all federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. Another bill passed in 1970 to protect the environment against harmful public and private activities was the Environmental Quality Improvement Act. That was also the year that Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency. Other important environmental laws include:

  • The Clean Air Act of 1963
  • The Clean Water Act
  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980

The sanctions imposed on parties that violate federal environmental laws can be severe. The Superfund program, which was established by CERCLA, requires businesses to clean up toxic sites and tasks the Department of Justice with recovering the costs involved when public action must be taken.

Environmental Attorneys

While laws governing natural resources are often the subject of major lawsuits filed by the EPA or advocacy groups, these issues may also arise in disputes involving individuals and local businesses. Attorneys with experience in this area may be called upon by either property developers or community members when construction could encroach on an environmentally sensitive area. Businesses might also consult environmental lawyers to ensure that their operations and expansion plans comply with state and federal natural resources laws. Proper legal planning could help prevent a public backlash and avoid protracted and costly litigation.

Common Law Environmental Issues

Property owners may pursue civil remedies under the tort law principles of trespass or nuisance when their land is becoming polluted due to the activities of others. Trespass, which deals with incursion or invasion, may be an appropriate cause of action when toxic material has spilled. Nuisance lawsuits are filed when the activities of a polluter interfere with a property owner’s land. To prevail in this kind of litigation, plaintiffs must establish that the defendants were not making reasonable use of their property. However, reasonableness is a nebulous concept, and judges make these decisions based on the specific facts of a case.

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