Environmental law deals with policies, laws and regulations that involve the world around us. Topics in environmental law center around the quality of the air we breathe and the water we use; as well as waste management, hazardous waste, protecting vulnerable and disappearing species, wetlands, agriculture, biodiversity, sustainability, green initiatives, and alternative energy sources.
Although it might be hard to believe now, as these topics are so central to our lives today, environmental law hasn’t always existed. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that year. At that time, environmental law centered around air pollution, surface water, groundwater, and solid waste disposal as its main concerns.
U.S. environmental policy has been designed to protect future generations while, at the same time, interfering as little as possible with commerce or individual liberties, and limiting environmental costs. The laws that are written and passed by Congress form the basis of and provide the authority for the EPA to write environmental regulations that are necessary to implement environmental laws.
That is the function of environmental lawyers? Because it is such a broad field, environmental lawyers will face a variety of needs. Many environmental lawyers advise businesses on complying with environmental laws. They also represent individuals and community groups in suing those who have broken environmental laws. They may represent commercial real estate clients who need help with legally documenting the environmental impact of a new housing development. They may also represent manufacturers who need advice in updating manufacturing practices to comply with environmental law.
Insurance companies may hire an attorney specializing in environmental law to testify in a trial affecting one of their insured clients accused of an environmental infraction. Governments also hire environmental attorneys to help create policies. They can be involved in issues that impact foreign policy. Attorneys may be called upon to interpret current laws and how they impact international business trade. They also help with risk assessment during hazardous waste cleanup from an accident, act of terror, or natural disaster. There are many government agencies now involved in areas of environmental protection that also serve in an advisory and watchdog capacity.
Nonprofit organizations need legal assistance from environmental lawyers as well. Many nonprofit organizations conducting emergency relief fieldwork need to know the best practices for handling disaster relief, and may consult an environmental lawyer to find out. When a natural disaster strikes, in order to restore property and provide help, an organization must know how to contend with hazardous situations in a way that doesn’t cause further damage. When a fire takes place, cleanup and disposal must be handled according to the law. A flood can disperse waste into the floodwaters. An earthquake can cause chemicals to spill out of containers. Even something as common as disposing of copier toner in the office can create an environmental problem. An environmental attorney can advise businesses and organizations on these issues and more.
The future of environmental law is bright. As increasing focus is placed on sustainability and the protection of the environment, the need for environmental lawyers should grow. Climate change is not slowing down, and neither are the new laws that are necessary to protect our fragile environment.