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Environment and Society, Environmental Legislation

number of alligators, endangered list, Florida panther, Endangered Species Act, endangered species list

As a result of growing public concern, the Congress of the United States enacted a series of major legislative acts designed to protect the environment and limit pollution. In 1970 Congress established an independent government agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to coordinate efforts to preserve the environment. The EPA sets environmental standards, approves state pollution control plans, and coordinates efforts with industries to clean up polluted land.

The EPA has established federal limits on air pollutants from industrial emission. It sets water quality standards and regulates regional water pollution controls. The agency also monitors radiation levels in the environment as well as the disposal, handling, and control of hazardous wastes and chemical substances, including pesticides. In addition, it conducts research to improve techniques of solid waste disposal and reuse, and to determine sources of water pollution and their effects.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 established limits on pollution levels in the air and tightened pollution emission levels for industrial factories and automobile exhaust fumes. By 1995 the emission of major air pollutants in the United States had decreased by 30 percent, even though the population had increased by 28 percent and automobile travel miles by 116 percent.

Congress also moved to improve the quality of water in 1972 with the passage of the Clean Water Act. The goal of the act was to end all pollution discharges into surface water, such as lakes, river and streams, wetlands, and coastal waters. The law also provided federal funds to help local governments construct facilities to treat sewage and remove other pollutants from water before it is discharged into the environment. Since the passage of the law, the discharge of pollutants into rivers and lakes has been greatly reduced, primarily through the construction of municipal sewage treatment plants and programs to monitor the discharge of waste from factories. Many rivers and lakes that once had only negligible animal or plant life now support healthy ecological systems. One example is Lake Erie, considered “dead” in the 1960s. By the 1990s the lake’s waters had transformed from brown to clear and a variety of fish and plant life had returned.

The government also took action to protect wildlife with the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This legislation set up provisions for identifying endangered species and prohibited the government, businesses, and individuals from harming any animal on the endangered species list or damaging its habitat. Some species have made dramatic recoveries since the adoption of the Endangered Species Act. In 1964 scientists recorded only 417 pairs of nesting adult bald eagles in the United States. By 1993, bald eagles had been removed from the endangered list and 4,016 pairs of nesting adults were known to exist. In the Southeast, hunting and habitat destruction reduced the number of alligators to the brink of extinction in the 1960s. By the 1990s, more than 1 million alligators lived in Florida.

Other endangered species have not fared as well. Conservationists are worried that the populations of some species may be so depleted that, despite conservation efforts, there may not enough genetic variety to allow these populations to continue breeding successfully. Some large predatory land mammals that need large habitat areas to survive, such as the grizzly bear and the Florida panther, are threatened as humans encroach on their territory.



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