Environmental laws do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on federal, state, and local government bodies, staffed by experts in environmental issues, who set standards, supervise cleanups, issue permits, and decide how to invest available funding. These groups are usually called “administrative agencies” or just “agencies.”
Our government works by having Congress or state legislatures pass laws, but the legislature entrusts the implementation of those laws to subject-matter experts at agencies.
To use a specific environmental law, you should also understand which agency enforces it. This can change depending on the statute. Making sure you are talking to the right agency can avoid wasted time and unnecessary frustration. To correctly identify which agency to contact, first identify the environmental statute you are looking to apply, and then determine who has the power to enforce it.
If you are concerned about a proposed project or existing facility, several different laws might be at issue, so make sure to check each and assemble a list of all the agencies that might be involved in an environmental decision. For example, a factory or power plant may create both air and water pollution, and generate hazardous solid waste, so a minimum of three different laws would be applicable.
This chapter will provide a general overview and a breakdown of the federal and state agencies that might be able to help you.
Federal Agencies Overview
Several federal agencies implement environmental pollution laws, ranging from the best known, the Environmental Protection Agency, to a variety of agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, and the Department of Defense.
Most federal agencies maintain offices in cities across the country, and many have regional headquarters for the Southeast here in Atlanta. These regional offices handle decisions involving individual projects and facilities and they will serve as primary contacts for federal actions that affect your community.
Agencies often contain sub-agencies, with a narrower focus than the parent agency. Some agencies are divided into “regions,” each of which focuses on a specific geographical area of the country. When reaching out to an agency about an issue in Georgia, make sure you are contacting the right regional office for Georgia.
Some of the agencies specifically dealing with environmental issues include:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) of the Department of Defense issues dredging permits and discharge permits for dredged or fill material being put into wetlands and other waters under the Clean Water Act.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) within the Centers for Disease Control (which itself is a sub-agency of the Department of Health and Human Services), conducts health assessments of contaminated sites (“Superfund sites”).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves as the primary administrator and enforcer of most environmental laws. The EPA can have different roles depending on the law. This includes conducting research and monitoring, supervising hazardous waste site cleanup, setting standards, and issuing rules, regulations, guidance, and permits across the country.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the Department of Health and Human Services administers food safety programs under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers programs to prevent agricultural chemicals and other pollutants from contaminating surface water and groundwater. The agency also provides grants and technical assistance to help farmers comply with environmental requirements.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) within the Department of the Interior (DOI) must be consulted by other federal agencies whenever an action may jeopardize the existence of a land-based or freshwater endangered species, and helps the other consulting agency come up with alternative means to conduct the action without harming endangered species. If the endangered species lives in the ocean, then the National Marine Fisheries Service(NMFS) performs the same function.
Federal Agency Breakdown:
Relevant Agencies and Departments for Environmental Issues
OSMRE is divided into twelve regions. Georgia is in Region 2.
State Agencies Overview
Working in conjunction with the EPA, state environmental agencies are the primary enforcers of environmental statutes. Some states have multiple environmental agencies, with separate agencies handling different programs, but Georgia only has one: the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). The EPD is part of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. This agency is explored in greater detail in Environmental Agencies in Georgia.
This overview focuses on the relationship between the federal government and the state agencies tasked to carry out certain environmental statutes as mandated by the federal agencies. The concept of sharing power between the federal and state government is called federalism. The most important aspect of federalism (for the purposes of this handbook) is that sometimes a state is granted authority to administer any or all programs under one of the national environmental laws instead of a federal agency. This is called “delegated authority.”
Each law differs in what states may administer. For example, laws governing pesticide use are handled only by the EPA, but the Clean Water Act “delegates” the authority to issue permits for the discharge of pollutants into water to individual states. Whether or not a particular law has delegated authority to the state impacts whom you should contact about a violation of that law – the state agency or the federal agency.
Regardless of a state having program authority, the EPA or other administrating agency has a continuing obligation to review state decisions, with many statutes including a veto provision allowing EPA or another federal agency to step in if it disapproves of a state agency’s decision. When you are working with or petitioning a state agency, be aware of what federal agency might also have authority in the situation.
Georgia Agency Breakdown:
Relevant Agencies and Departments for Environmental Issues