U.S. Environmental Regulations

Basic concepts of environmental law

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How (or thereabouts)

What does "environmental regulation" mean?
Environmental regulations are rules and requirements that generally cover two things:

  • Pollution control: regulating how much pollution (chemicals or other undesirable materials such as "heat", "suspended particulates" ) a facility releases
  • Conservation management: maintaining health of ecosystems - protecting land, assuring diversity of species, etc.

The tools focus on pollution control, although we’ll provide some review of conservation management.

How do you define "pollution"?
Pollution refers to undesirable outputs or byproducts being released into the environment. Chemical compounds are a common form of pollution, but pollution also includes things like: waste heat (e.g., discharging heated water into a river), or suspended particulates (e.g., creating a lot of air-borne dust). Even harmless compounds like CO2 can be considered pollution, depending on the effect on the environment (e.g., CO2 contributes to global warming).

What’s covered under "pollution control"?
It’s important to understand that pollution control covers both actual releases and potential releases of pollution to the environment. That is, you may be regulated based on what you actually release up an airstack, and for what you might potentially release (i.e., if you don’t handle the materials properly). Here’s what’s covered:

Regulation of actual releases covers releases that have occurred through:

  • Direct release, e.g., an airstack or wastewater pipe
  • Waste disposal, e.g., solid or hazardous waste being taken to a landfill or treatment plant
  • General escape, e.g., "fugitive" emissions into air, water runoff from your parking lot, or spills or leaks of chemical products or waste

Regulation of potential releases is focused on materials that would cause a problem if accidentally released. In this case, regulations can cover:

  • What materials you have on site
  • How you store them
  • How you handle and manage them
  • How workers are protected from them (though worker protection is largely covered by OSHA regulations, which are not covered in detail in this manual).

Who regulates pollution control?
There are major and minor players in the regulatory world. Here are those we’d call the major players: 

  • The granddaddy federal agency that regulates pollution control is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Almost all federal pollution control regulation originates with the EPA.
  • In addition, each state has its own environmental agency, that may enforce standards that are a compliment to or even stricter than the federal standards (never weaker). In some cases, a state will also be the one to enforce the national regulations: if EPA agrees that their program is strong enough, it will "delegate" the federal program to them.
  • Finally, regional and/or metropolitan agencies are also common, particularly for air quality management and sewer management.

Other players to keep in mind: 

  • The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) is a key federal agency for worker safety and health regulation. Since worker health can be affected by many of the same compounds that are regulated by EPA, OSHA regulation overlaps with environmental regulation.
  • Other federal agencies, including: the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) (e.g., covering the transportation of hazardous materials), and the U.S. Army Core of Engineers (COE) (e.g., covering the dredging and filling of wetlands).
  • County and/or city agencies may in some cases substitute for regional agencies (e.g., the sewer authority may be county-run).
  • Finally, community groups are another set of players. While community groups have no direct regulatory authority, citizens do have the right under several laws to sue if a facility isn’t following the regulations. Community groups also have general influence on how your business is regulated.

How do you know if you’re covered by environmental regulation?
As you might imagine, it is your responsibility to determine if you are covered and to learn the requirements you must meet. However, not all facilities are regulated all the time. 

  • One major criteria for being regulated is the amount of waste generated (or chemicals used). For example, if your waste levels fall below certain thresholds, you may have reduced or no regulation. This is a major incentive for minimizing your waste streams in order to get out of the regulatory loop.
  • Another criteria for being regulated: the type of industry your facility is in (SIC code). The chemical industry, SIC 28, is covered under all of the standard environmental regulations.
  • Other criteria can include:
    • the size of the facility (e.g., number of workers)
    • the general environmental quality of the area. For example, a facility in an airshed with bad air quality may be subject to tighter emissions standards than if it were in an area of better air quality.

Related topics in

Program office links:
EPA rulemaking process information


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