How Environmental Laws and Tools Can Help Your Community
Regardless of race, color, or income, everyone deserves environmental justice and equal protection from environmental harms and risks.
Environmental laws are the rules that protect people and the environment from pollution and toxic chemicals. Environmental laws:
Manage and protect our air and water quality
Manage the storage and disposal of toxic wastes
Support the sustainability of our natural resources
Empower agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create rules and regulations to protect the environment
Although environmental laws can seem technical and difficult to understand, you and your community can learn to use these laws to help deal with environmental concerns and health risks and to even hold lawbreakers accountable.
Using the EJ Green Book
The EJ Green Book was created to help you understand how environmental laws interact with your community. Although some environmental issues are complex and may require the assistance of an experienced attorney, this toolkit will provide you with a good starting point to help you identify:
which questions you should be asking,
what information you will need, and
what tools are available to you and your community.
Although the EJ Green Book is not a substitute for the knowledge and experience of professionals, you can achieve a lot with this information.
The EJ Green Book covers many of the environmental regulations and laws that you should be aware of as you start addressing the environmental concerns of your community. However, this toolkit is meant to serve as a starting point and not a complete reference to all the different types of laws, agencies, and environmental issues you might face. Environmental law involves many government agencies and is administered and enforced through lots of different laws and branches of government. For this reason, you should always conduct additional research to determine which law or agency is most relevant to the specific issue you are trying to address. Your specific situation might not be covered by this toolkit, but you will still find the major tools and resources necessary to know how to identify potentially applicable laws and what steps to take once you do.
As a first step, this chapter introduces the different areas regulated by environmental laws, who environmental laws protect, the tools and opportunities that are available to you, and how you can use those tools to help you achieve environmental justice for your community. When you understand these tools and opportunities, you can recruit and educate other members of your community to make sure that everyone is represented and included. Remember, there is strength in numbers, and there are many organizations throughout Georgia that can provide support and expertise to your cause.
Identifying the Issues
Although the purpose of environmental laws is to protect people and the environment from pollution and toxic chemicals, most environmental laws are tightly focused on specific issues. Being able to identify what issues are relevant to your community and which laws apply to those issues can help you address those concerns.
A sampling of the specific areas covered by environmental law that you might find useful are:
Pre-Construction Environmental Review
One of the most powerful environmental laws is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires that the government take a “hard look” at the potential environmental impacts from a project before beginning construction.
NEPA allows for public involvement and provides a chance for communities to have their voices heard before a project that may harm them is approved.
In the context of environmental law, land use means the economic and cultural activities that are allowed on a specific piece of land and the control of nuisances.
Examples of these practices may include agriculture, industrial, mining, and even residential uses. The legal system that implements what types of uses are allowed in certain locations within a county or city is called zoning.
Because changes in land use and zoning occur constantly and can have significant and cumulative effects on the quality of a community’s climate, health, air, water, and waste generation, it has become a critically important area of environmental law.
Environmental laws also regulate household, industrial, and hazardous waste under federal and state laws. The goal of these laws is to protect communities from the potential dangers of improper waste disposal, to preserve natural resources through recycling, and to clean up land that may have been contaminated by improper waste disposal.
Lead is a common pollutant that causes terrible harms, especially to children, and can be found in air, water, paint, dust, and soil. See Lead Contamination for more information specific to lead.
Although the Clean Water Act establishes the basic rules through which government agencies must regulate the discharge of pollution into our waters, environmental agencies have a broader mandate to protect clean and safe drinking water. This often means working with local wastewater treatment plants, addressing pollution issues, and protecting rivers and streams.
The Clean Air Act gives environmental agencies the authority to limit the emissions of air pollutants coming from sources like chemical plants, industrial sites, and businesses. These agencies must set appropriate limits on how much of these pollutants can be in the air to protect air quality for communities.
See Air Pollution for more about protecting air quality and regulating pollution.
In Georgia, there are opportunities for communities to participate in the decision-making process of electrical utility companies. Communities can advocate for different types of power generation, switching from more-polluting to less-polluting kinds of generation technology, and lower electrical costs.
As you decide to tackle an environmental issue or concern in your community, you may wonder what types of programs, resources, or tools are available to empower you.
The next sections will present you with a range of government processes, online resources, and specific legal actions that can serve as your tools to address environmental issues to achieve important outcomes for your community.
While some of these tools are mechanisms and resources that are established by our laws, others are more informal – platforms and programs offered by environmental agencies to support your organizing efforts by providing you with the information, technical support, and planning resources that you need to be a successful advocate for your community.
Using Legal Tools
Many mechanisms and tools are already built into our environmental laws and are an important part of the lawmaking process. Even though these tools can seem challenging, they are often very straightforward and offer the greatest potential for positive results when used properly.
The EJ Green Book will help you learn how to effectively use these tools with your community and will address many of your questions and concerns.
Accessing Public Records and Meetings
Federal, state, and local governments are required to keep records about polluting facilities that are available to the public. Knowing how to use the law to access these records can be a great tool for you to obtain the information you need to help address environmental concerns in your community.
When government agencies create, change, or get rid of a rule, they often do so through a process known as rulemaking. These agencies are required by law to let the public know about these new or changed rules and to accept comments from interested individuals or organizations before approving the new rule.
This process is known as “notice and comment rulemaking” and it is a great way to directly submit feedback or concerns about a specific law, project, permit, or rule affecting your community. You can also submit comments on Environmental Impact Statements, which are an analysis of the potential impacts of and alternatives to a project. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires Environmental Impact Statements for some types of projects.
If your community is being disproportionately burdened with environmental harms, you can help address these types of issues by filing a complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, although this particular tool has some unique challenges.
Sometimes the government gets it wrong when issuing a permit for a project or facility, but you and your community still have an important role in helping to correct these mistakes.
In Georgia, the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has an administrative hearing process that requires the agency to review a specific permit that may have been improperly used or granted by the agency. This process is called an “Administrative Appeal,” and is kind of like a lawsuit, but does not use the court system. This makes it a quicker and less expensive option.
If you have evidence or good reason to believe that the government or a private organization is breaking an environmental law or not complying with the terms of a permit, you may have the right to file a lawsuit to stop them.
Most federal environmental laws have a section known as “citizen suit” provisions. These provisions allow ordinary citizens to act against environmental injustice and can be a very powerful tool when used properly. However, they can also be expensive, difficult to win, and time-consuming.
To learn more about citizen suits and how they can be used, please see Citizen Suits.
Using Other Tools Provided by Environmental Agencies
In addition to the formal tools offered by environmental laws, government agencies such as the EPA and Georgia’s EPD offer grants and programs specifically designed to help communities address environmental concerns.
Here are a few resources that you might find useful as you start working with your community to tackle environmental issues:
The EPA’s Green Power Partnership is a national voluntary program that supports the organizational procurement of green power by offering expert advice, technical support, tools, and resources. By working with the EPA, you can help your community lower the costs involved with transitioning to greener more renewable sources of energy.
GIWiz is an interactive web application that connects communities to EPA’s tools and resources designed to support and promote sustainable water management and community planning decisions. The tools and resources available through the platform can help communities better analyze environmental problems, understand management options, analyze the costs and benefits of solutions, and develop education and outreach campaigns.
Household Carbon Footprint Calculator
Many activities cause emissions of greenhouse gases. For example, you produce emissions from burning gasoline when you drive, burning oil or gas for home heating, and while using electricity generated from coal, natural gas, and oil.
The Carbon Footprint Calculator can help you and your community educate others about emissions and can help you obtain the information you need to support community efforts to reduce environmental impacts.
EPA’s Sustainable Design and Green Building Toolkit
This tool can be used by members of a community to advocate for improvements to local building codes and ordinances that affect the design and construction of buildings in a way that minimizes the effects on the environment.
Additional Resources from Federal and State Government Agencies