Environmental Law

The text summarizes types of environmental litigation cases and explains how the lawsuit process works. Do you believe it is important to have strict enforcement of the laws to ensure compliance?


Environmental law governs environmental issues regarding individuals, businesses, and government entities. Environment law includes regulations and cleanup regarding hazardous or chemical materials, and the consequences of individuals who violate environment statutes. Environmental law provides environmental protection for prospective purchasers of environmentally impacted property and prohibits the dumping of toxic waste or other hazardous materials in our lakes, rivers, streams, and public land.

Environment law covers a broad area of the law that regulates the statutes concerning the environment. Environmental law cases can include a wide variety of consumer-concerning events such as pollution, chemical spills, toxic waste dumping, wetland destruction, land development, solid waste, natural resource usage, wildlife protection, and Native American Indian Rights.


Environmental Law and Policy

In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Environmental Quality Improvement Act, and the National Environmental Education Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The main objective of these federal acts was to ensure the environment is protected from public and private actions that fail to take account of costs or harms inflicted on the ecosystem.

The NEPA mandate is to force governmental agencies to consider the effects of their decisions on the environment, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) functions to monitor and analyze the environment, conduct research, and work closely with state and local governments to devise pollution control policies.

Environmental laws, put into place by state and federal rulings, are enforced by the EPA. The EPA is responsible for implementing and enforcing more than 16 major environmental statutes that have many requirements and are governed by various agencies.

Backed by these laws, individuals or groups can bring attention to environmental problems or violations and take action with the help of environmental law firms.

For example, in October 2009, the EPA fined Samsung $205,000 for violating the federal fungicide, insecticide and rodenticide act (FIFRA) by failing to register its products with USEPA when it publicized that its keyboards, produced with nanosilver, were antimicrobial and inhibited germs and bacteria. One month earlier, the EPA filed a lawsuit against the North Face Company, alleging that they sold shoes containing an unregistered pesticide and made unverified health-related claims for about 70 shoe products.

The EPA's environmental areas of concern include:

  • Air Pollution
  • Water Pollution
  • Toxic Waste
  • Plants and factories
  • Illegal Dumping
  • Marine and Ocean Discharges
  • Heavy Metal Contamination
  • Asbestos
  • Chemical Spills
  • Oil Spills
  • Solid Waste
  • Toxic Tort


Toxic Waste, Pollution, and Hazardous Wastes

The U.S. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. TSCA empowers the EPA to gather information regarding the toxicity of chemical substances to determine whether they are a risk to human health and the environment.

Under TSCA:

  • The EPA may require testing of substances by manufacturers and notification of the use of new chemical substances.
  • Extensive reporting and record-keeping is required by industry users of toxic substances.

In addition to generally regulating toxic substances, the Act contains specific provisions concerning asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and radon gas.

  • The provisions concerning asbestos require inspection of school buildings, development of asbestos management plans by schools, and training and accreditation of contractors who deal with asbestos.
  • The provisions concerning PCBs phase out the use of these substances.
  • The provisions concerning radon require providing the public with information concerning the hazards of radon gas accumulation in buildings.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), provides for the cleanup of sites polluted by toxic and hazardous wastes.

  • CERCLA creates the environmental Superfund, which is used to finance governmental cleanup activities. Under CERCLA, federal and state governments, as well as private parties, may sue anyone responsible for the generation, transportation, or disposal of hazardous substances.
  • CERCLA imposes strict liability for the costs of cleaning up hazardous substances, subject to very limited exceptions. CERCLA liability is also "joint and several" liability, meaning that a party who is only partly responsible for hazardous wastes may potentially be responsible for paying the entire cost of the cleanup.
  • CERCLA gives the EPA the authority to determine which waste sites should have priority in cleanup efforts. Under this authority, the EPA publishes a National Priorities List, ranking the worst hazardous waste sites in the country according to their priority in need for cleanup efforts. Only hazardous waste sites included on the list may utilize federal Superfund monies for cleanup.


Toxic Tort

A toxic tort is a particular type of personal injury lawsuit brought against the manufacturer or supplier of a chemical product that causes a toxic injury. Claims usually arise from exposure to pharmaceutical drugs or occupational exposures, such as exposure to benzene, which is has been linked to leukemia.

Pharmaceutical toxic tort cases are generally product liability cases – the drug being the defective product. They are often litigated against drug manufacturers and distributors, as well as prescribing physicians. Most all pharmaceutical toxic injury cases are mass tort cases, because a toxic drug is likely consumed by thousands of people.

Occupational toxic tort cases differ from workers' compensation claims because they are not brought against the employer. Rather, they are brought against "third parties" – usually manufacturers or distributors of chemicals; the machines or devices that expose the worker to the chemicals; and/or the owners and lessors of premises where the worker was exposed to the toxic chemicals. Asbestos exposure is the most common toxic tort litigation in this area but also difficult to prove because the onset of asbestos-related illness such as mesothelioma can develop years after exposure to asbestos.

You can also be exposed to toxic chemicals in your home. Toxic tort litigation covers mold contamination, construction materials such as formaldehyde-treated wood and carpet, lead paint and Chinese Drywall. As well, litigation can involve a consumer product: for example, leukemia claims from exposure to gasoline. For example, if you rent an apartment in a building containing a toxic material, residents can bring about a toxic tort and your landlord may have to pay for any injuries incurred.

Environmental toxic tort litigation is on the rise, particularly against corporations spilling toxic materials.

Some examples:

  • Industrial manufacturing facilities and refineries have been cited for alleged violations of California OSHA General Industry Safety Orders and federal OSHA regulations.
  • An environmental contamination case was brought about by more than 1,000 residents of Hildago County, Texas, who claimed exposure from releases at a former pesticide warehouse.
  • A small town in California brought about a toxic tort against a major railroad that allegedly released anhydrous ammonia into the air.
  • Product manufacturers have been accused of exposing the public to chemical concentrations in excess of "maximum contaminant levels", in violation of The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.

To bring about a toxic tort lawsuit, you need to prove the following:

  • You were exposed to some type of hazardous material.
  • The hazardous material caused an injury or illness (such as cancer); birth defects or some other illness.
  • If a company should have to pay for that injury, you have to prove a theory of liability, or give the judge a legal reason why the company should have to pay for what happened.
  • An experienced toxic tort attorney can help you determine whether you have a strong toxic tort case by choosing a theory of liability, and assisting you to build evidence that can prove toxic exposure caused you harm.



Brownfields are of great concern to environmental agencies. They are industrial and commercial sites that are either unused or abandoned because questions have been raised regarding their need for environmental cleanup under CERCLA or other environmental statutes. Federal and state programs have provided incentives that encourage state and local governments to voluntarily cleanup and reuse many brownfields.


State versus Federal Environmental Laws

Numerous states have environmental statutes that differ from federal statutes. If the federal statutes provide more extensive environmental protection, the provisions of state statutes are usually preempted by the federal legislation, requiring the more stringent federal standards to be applied in the state.

Conversely, many states have more stringent environmental laws than federal law. If that is the case, more stringent state statutes must be followed unless it is determined that the federal enactment was intended to preempt more stringent state laws.

For example, New Jersey's statutes restricting development in wetlands are more stringent than federal law. California has numerous stringent environmental laws, including an environmental advertising law restricting the representation of products as being environmentally friendly, recyclable, or biodegradable unless certain standards are met.

Along with the EPA and other federal agencies, every state has an agency responsible for pollution control, and the type and extent of state regulation vary. Although the EPA has delegated the majority of federal environmental laws it administers to state environmental agencies, when the EPA delegates a program to a state, it retains oversight authority over that program.


Federal and State Environmental Law and Real Property

State laws are similar to federal law and common law actions allow environmental protection to property owners who seek legal help for environmental damage and/or injury. Environmental law protects a citizen when purchasing, improving, leasing, or developing real property with indoor air and water quality hazards. Environmental protection includes lead-based paint, lead, asbestos, radon, sick building syndrome, and mold, as they relate to the sale or lease of real property.

Federal environmental law includes the rules and regulations governing the renovation and demolition of buildings and the potential tort liability faced by building owners for personal injuries caused by exposure to any hazardous materials, such as asbestos.


Environmental Lawsuit

Anyone can bring a case to court regarding environmental law, including property damage or bodily injury or damages from someone who is violating environmental law. For example, if someone dumps paint or any hazardous material on your property, you could file a lawsuit that will force them to pay for the cleanup.

Citizens can also file an environmental lawsuit against companies or organizations that are violating environmental law. However, if the government or other individuals have already started processes to stop a company or organization from violating environmental law, an individual generally will not be allowed to file a suit.

If a business or individual is found guilty of violating environmental law and policy, they could face fines, probation or imprisonment, or all three punishments.


Enforcement of Federal Environmental Laws

Each federal environmental enactment contains specific enforcement provisions usually giving the EPA, or state agencies implementing federal statutes, broad authority to enforce the environmental laws.

  • Enforcement proceedings may be brought at the agency level, administrative level, or in court proceedings.
  • Enforcement provisions may include imposing fines and penalties as well as instituting criminal proceedings.
  • Actions for injunctive relief may also be brought. An action for injunctive relief is an administrative or court proceeding in which the defendant is ordered to cease an activity that violates an applicable statute or regulation, or to take action to comply with legal standards and requirements.
  • Some environmental enactments imposing obligations on the states in the area of enforcement and regulation include provisions permitting the suspension of certain federal benefits, such as federal highway funding, if the state fails to comply with federal environment law enforcement requirements.


Environmental Law Firms

Environmental law firms can evaluate cases involving pollution, chemical spills, toxic waste dumping, wetland destruction, land development, solid waste, natural resource usage, wildlife protection and Indian Rights. Some chemical and environmental hazards can lead to serious consumer illnesses and cancers.


Environmental Lawyers

If you are accusing someone of violating environmental laws, or if you have been accused of violating an environmental law, you should seek help from an environmental lawyer who will advise you on how to proceed with your case.

Source: LawyersandSettlements.com
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2021, 1:55 PM