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Environmental Lawyers


The first federal environmental law—the Rivers and Harbors Act—was enacted by Congress in 1899 and signed into law by President William McKinley. The act was created to protect waters from pollution and to protect the navigability of waters. The discharge of waste of any kind into navigable U.S. waters or tributaries without a permit is deemed a misdemeanor under this law. The act also deems it a misdemeanor if excavation, filling, or altering has been done, without a permit, to the course, condition, or capacity of any channel, harbor, port, or other water areas as described in the act. The key points of older environmental acts have since been encompassed by the Clean Water Act, but the Rivers and Harbors Act remains independent and vital, administered today by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It continues to safeguard waters, and it has provided the basis for numerous lawsuits filed by state agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency against corporations that have discharged pollutants and hazardous wastes into rivers and harbors.

President Theodore Roosevelt was passionate about the environment and conserving wild lands, and he was instrumental in getting many conservation laws passed during his two terms in office (1901–1909). Under Roosevelt’s administration, the protection of national forest acreage multiplied five times over, from 40 million acres to 200 million acres, and the National Parks and Monument Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (known as the Antiquities Act) was passed in 1906. This landmark environmental law was aimed at preserving archaeological sites on public lands and requiring federal agencies to manage and preserve these natural resources. The Antiquities Act authorizes the president to publicly proclaim, at his discretion, historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific or historic interest, which are on federally controlled lands, as national monuments and to preserve the lands on which they are located.

An early lawsuit in U.S. environmental law history was the case of Scenic Hudson Preservation v. Federal Power Commission (FPC) in 1965. Con Edison had plans to build a power plant on scenic and historic Storm King Mountain, near the Hudson River in New York. A group of residents opposed the plans and organized in an effort to protect the land; the case gathered strength when conservation groups joined the fight. The attorney representing the residents argued not on technical aspects (such as regarding Con Edison’s ability to carry out its plans), but rather on aesthetic and quality-of-life aspects, charging that the FPC had not adequately addressed the interests of the public, meaning Storm King Mountain’s beauty and historical importance. The court ruled in favor of Scenic Hudson Preservation, and the case is considered a landmark in environmental law because it was the first time a conservation group was allowed to sue to protect the public interest.

Interest in the environment continued to grow in the 1970s, triggering the passing of many environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Environmental Pesticide Control Act, as well as amendments to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The U.S. government committed to protecting the health of the environment and its inhabitants when, in 1970, it enacted the National Environmental Policy Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. The environmental law field has expanded in the decades since to match the growth of environmental policy and legislation.

Demand for environmental lawyers who work for corporations and other businesses has increased as a result of the growing number of environmental laws that have been passed in the last 40 years or so. Companies need legal experts who can help them meet the requirements of complex environmental laws, represent their interests in court and during other legal proceedings, review pending environmental legislation to determine how it will affect a business, help obtain permits and licenses, and provide advice on issues such as carbon trading.

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