Important US Environmental Policies (Pt. 1)

Throughout our nation’s history, countless laws have been passed, and naturally, some stand out more than others. I’ve compiled a list of 10 of the most important environmental policies the USA has passed, in chronological order. However, I’ll be splitting up the list into two parts, just so that you’re not reading a whole essay. Keep reading to find out what they are! 

  1. The Clean Air Act (1963)

We’re starting off strong here with one of the most famous US environmental policies to date, the Clean Air Act of 1963. Up until this act was passed, the quality of America’s air was awful, and getting worse by the day, with “many cities choking in smog,” says Frank O’Donnell, the President of the non-profit organization Clean Air Watch. An example of this happened on Halloween night of 1948, when “an unseasonable temperature inversion blocked emissions from a zinc blast furnace” in Donora, PA, producing the deadly “Donora Death Fog”, according to ABC News. The fog claimed the lives of 20 people and caused over 600 people to be diagnosed with serious illnesses, finally disappearing after a week. Similar phenomena occurred all over the country, to the point where it was clear that the US’s air desperately needed a refresh.

The Clean Air Act provided exactly that. Initially passed on December 17, 1963, it addressed air pollution, including that from carbon dioxide emissions, and sought to reduce it. After further amendments in the coming years, it allowed the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set standards for what types of pollution could be released into the air. The 1970 amendment also allowed for the phase-out of lead-based gasoline, which was one of the main toxic air pollutants used at the time.

A graphic by the EPA exhibiting the positive change in national air pollutant emissions following the implementation of the Clean Air Act.

This act has done much good for America. In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the percentage of American children with more lead in their blood than normal has decreased to 4% from 88%. A 2002 report by the Journal of American Medical Association concluded that the act saved 11,700 people from dying due to carbon monoxide produced from automobile emissions between 1968 and 1998.

2. The National Environmental Policy Act (1970)

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 is hailed as the “cornerstone of modern environmental law in the United States”. Passed on January 1, 1970, it requires all federal agencies to conduct an environmental impact study and complete an environmental impact statement before undertaking any project. An environmental impact statement is simply a “document that describes the impact(s) on the environment as a result of a proposed action,” according to the EPA, the proposed action being the said project.

  1. Reorganization Plan No. 3 (1970)

Judging by the name of this environmental policy, it may feel out of place on this list. However, the Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970 is one of the most beneficial environmental policies passed in the United States of America, largely because it created the EPA. That’s right, before July 9, 1970, there was no singular federal agency whose main purpose was to deal with the nation’s environment. Following the NEPA, the President at the time, Richard Nixon, felt that the national government was “not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” Thus, the Reorganization Plan No. 3 reorganized the government to create the EPA, hence the name. Without this environmental policy, our country’s attempts to protect our environment would likely be all over the place and definitely not be as successful, and the quality of the environment itself would certainly not be as good as it is today. 

  1. The Clean Water Act (1972)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state of America’s freshwater systems weren’t great. Stuart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, even said that “the rivers of [the] country were sewers” during that time period. It was obvious that something needed to be done to remedy the situation.

Then, the Clean Water Act of 1972 came along. It required the EPA to set standards for what pollutants could be released into freshwater resources, and enforced polluters to obtain a permit to emit said pollution. It also gave the states the responsibility of developing plans to protect their waterways from non-point pollution, which usually covers large areas and is harder to control, unlike point pollution, which comes from a single source like a factory.

The act has prevented millions of pounds of pollution from entering our bodies of freshwater, but even so, a 2009 study conducted by Duke University deduced that even though water quality has improved, “population growth, limited jurisdiction, and unforeseen water stressors, such as emerging contaminants and climate change” nonetheless afflicted the act’s effectiveness, so there’s still quite a bit of work to get done.

  1. The Endangered Species Act (1973)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 was a significant step towards the protection of endangered species, or species that are at risk of extinction in the future, in the United States of America. Passed on December 28, 1973, it made hunting, collecting, trapping, harassing, wounding, or any other type of harm to a member of an endangered species, including severe destruction of its habitat, illegal across the nation. 

An infographic created by the Endangered Species Coalition about the Endangered Species Act.

Thanks to it, several species have come off of the endangered species list, among them being the country’s national bird, the bald eagle. In fact, about 25% of the species on the list have been removed after having recovered. However, like most things that are done for the benefit of the environment, it’s quite expensive to enforce, and can threaten human health by prohibiting the removal of dangerous, yet endangered, species, such as the gray wolf.

That’s it for Part 1 of this list; stay tuned for part 2!

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