Pre- EPA: US Environmental Laws Before 1970

Posted on 11/8/2016 by James Griffin

The founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 by President Richard Nixon kicked off an explosion of environmental protection laws issued by Congress—like the Clean Air Act in the 1970s and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, in the 1980s.

But laws that protect the environment existed long before the EPA got its start. In some cases, these laws existed for nearly a century by the time the EPA was founded. Today, we’ll look at some of the early US environmental laws that predated—and heavily influenced—the major EPA air, water, and chemical programs that affect facilities nationwide today.


Pre-EPA Environmental Laws: Water

1899 Rivers and Harbors Act

Possibly the oldest environmental law in the United States. Also the first use of the term “navigable waters” in Federal legislation. The “Refuse Act” portion of the law prohibits “the dumping of refuse that would obstruct navigation of navigable waters, except under a federal permit.”

Section 9 of the law prohibits the construction of any bridge, dam, dike, or causeway over or in navigable waterways of the US without Congressional approval. However, structures authorized by
State legislatures may be built if the affected navigable waters are totally within one state, provided that the plan is approved by the Chief of Engineers and the Secretary of Army.

US EPA Water lawsSection 10 prohibits the building of any wharfs, piers, jetties, and other structures without Congressional approval. This section also designates the approval of excavation or fill activities within navigable waters to the Chief of Engineers.

1925 Oil Pollution Act

The first Federal law to prohibit the intentional discharge of fuel oil into tidal waters. Enforcement authority was given to the Army Corps of Engineers (until the creation of the EPA in 1970).

1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act

The law that created a comprehensive set of water quality programs intended to provide some financing for State and local governments. However, enforcement was still limited to interstate waters, not intrastate waters.

1965 Water Quality Act

The Act that called for the establishment of water quality standards that are State and Federally enforceable. Also authorized the creation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to set standards where states failed or were unable to do so.

Pre-EPA Environmental Laws: Air

1881 City Smoke Ordinances

In 1881, Chicago and Cincinnati both established city smoke ordinances in the absence of State or Federal legislation. Philadelphia followed in 1904.

1947 California Air Pollution Control Act

This state-level piece of legislation authorized the creation of Air Pollution Control Districts across the state. This concept would be repeated nationwide under the 1970 Clean Air Act.

1955 Air Pollution Control Act

This law was the first to declare air pollution to be a danger to human health. It primarily provided for research and technical assistance, but left the regulatory and enforcement burden to the states.

US EPA air laws

1963 Clean Air Act

The first Federal law to actually address controlling and abatement of air pollution. Regulatory and enforcement authority were given to the US Public Health Service.

1967 Air Quality Act

This law enabled the Federal government to step up enforcement involving interstate transport of air pollution and to create ambient monitoring and source inspection programs.


Pre-EPA Environmental Laws: Solid and Hazardous Waste

1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act

The SWDA directed the US Public Health Service to create and enforce regulations for solid waste collection, transportation, recycling, and disposal, although the majority of that burden was passed down to the states. This is the law that first defined “solid waste” as any discarded solid, semi-solid, liquid, or contained gaseous material.

US EPA hazardous waste laws
1970 Resource Conservation Act

This Act emphasized the recovery of energy and materials from solid wastes over the disposal of such wastes as a way to prevent virgin resource shortages. The Public Health Service was also tasked with collecting information on the disposal of hazardous wastes nationwide, which in part led to the enacting of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976.

Pre-EPA Environmental Laws: Pesticides

1910 Federal Insecticide Act

This law was aimed at protecting farmers and consumers from fraudulent “pesticide manufacturers” by setting standards for chemical quality and consumer protection, but did not address the issue of pesticides’ effect on the greater environment.US EPA pesticide laws

1947 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)

This was the first Federal law to require the registration of pesticides distributed in interstate commerce. It was also the first to establish basic, if simple, labeling requirements. The US Department of Agriculture was given the responsibility of writing and enforcing these regulations.
You probably recognize many of the “old” laws listed here. When the EPA was established in 1970, the new Agency took control of the regulatory and enforcement provisions of these laws, carrying them forward under EPA’s flag.

Do You Know the EPA Rules That Affect You In 2017?

If you’re new to EHS compliance, or need an update on changing EPA rules, the Complete Environmental Regulations Workshop will help you identify the requirements that apply to your facility and make decisions that put your team in a position to succeed. Attend the workshop to get expert-led training, collaborate with other EHS managers, and take home reference materials and resources to help you make big decisions to protect employees and the environment.

Keeping your site in compliance with the many complex EPA programs that affect you—from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to TSCA, FIFRA, EPCRA, and more—is a major challenge. Get ready for 2017—sign up now! 

Tags: Act, Air, Clean, Clean Water Act, EPA, FIFRA, RCRA

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