Environmental Protection Agency EPA Law and Legal Definition

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal government agency charged with the nation's environmental science, research, education and assessment efforts.

The EPA works to develop and enforce regulations that implement environmental laws enacted by Congress. EPA is responsible for researching and setting national standards for a variety of environmental programs, and delegates to states and tribes the responsibility for issuing permits and for monitoring and enforcing compliance. Where national standards are not met, EPA can issue sanctions and take other steps to assist the states and tribes in reaching the desired levels of environmental quality.

The EPA provides direct support through grants to state environmental programs. EPA research grants to states, non-profits and educational institutions aim to improve the scientific basis for decisions on national environmental issues and help EPA achieve its goals. The Agency works with volunteer partners for research and education efforts. Partners set voluntary pollution-management goals; examples include conserving water and energy, minimizing greenhouse gases, slashing toxic emissions, re-using solid waste, controlling indoor air pollution, and getting a handle on pesticide risks.

Additional Definitions

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created on December 2, 1970, by executive order of President Richard Nixon to "permit coordinated and effective government action on behalf of the environment." Fifteen different environmental programs from various federal offices were combined and placed under the jurisdiction of the newly created EPA. The EPA was designed to serve as an "umbrella agency" through which most federal environmental laws, regulations, and policies would be administered.


The administrator of the EPA is appointed by the President of the United States and approved by the Senate, along with a deputy administrator, nine assistant administrators, an inspector general, and a general counsel. The inspector general is responsible for investigating environmental crimes, and the general counsel provides legal advice. Within the EPA are four "program" offices. They are 1) Air and Radiation; 2) Water; 3) Pesticides and Toxic Substances; and 4) Solid Waste and Emergency Response. There is also an office for Research and Development which works in coordination with each of the four program offices.

The main office of the EPA, which is located in Washington, D.C., oversees implementation of national environmental laws and programs, directs the EPA's regional offices and laboratories, and submits budget requests to Congress. Research is conducted through the EPA's main office and at its regional field laboratories. There are ten regional EPA offices and field laboratories which work directly with state and local governments to coordinate pollution control efforts. The EPA uses a portion of its federal funding to provide grants and technical assistance to states and local governmental units that seek to prevent pollution.


The EPA's powers and programs are established through legislation passed by Congress. (Such legislation delegating powers to an agency is known as "enabling" legislation.) Today the EPA is charged with the administration of a myriad of federal environmental laws dealing with air and water pollution, drinking water quality, radioactive wastes, pesticides, solid wastes, and noise pollution. Altogether some 18 major laws fall into EPA's "portfolio" (see Environmental Law and Business in this volume). In general, the EPA develops standards or regulations pursuant to environmental statutes; enforces those standards, regulations, and statutes; monitors pollutants in the environment; conducts research; and promotes public environmental education.

The EPA has five main objectives, called "core functions." These include: 1) Pollution Prevention, which is also know as "source reduction"; 2) Risk Assessment and Risk Reduction, which is the task of identifying those issues which pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment and taking action to reduce those risks; 3) Science, Research, and Technology, which involves research designed to develop innovative technologies to deal with environmental problems; 4) Regulatory Development, which involves developing standards for operations of industrial facilities—including, for example, standards for air emissions of pollutants pursuant to Clean Air Act permits and standards for discharge of effluents under Clean Water Act permits; and 5) Environmental Education, which involves developing educational materials and providing grants to educational institutions.


The EPA works closely with state and local governments in their pollution control efforts. During the early 1980s, efforts to "downsize" federal government led the EPA to hand over more responsibility for enforcement of regulatory programs to state and local governments. States are encouraged to pass their own statutes and regulations which meet or exceed the requirements of federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, RCRA, and CERCLA. Upon certification by the federal EPA, such states take over day-to-day enforcement of a specific statutory program and of the regulations pertaining to that program. As a result, business people in many states find that their day-to-day contact with enforcement officials regarding environmental statutes and regulations is with a state counterpart to the EPA rather than with the federal EPA itself. However, even when a state has been certified to administer such a program, the federal EPA continues to oversee the state's enforcement activities. It provides assistance to state officials and sometimes participates directly in major enforcement actions against violators of environmental laws.

The EPA also works closely with other federal environmental control agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Coast Guard. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration engages in long-range research on pollution problems, especially problems affecting the ocean and the atmosphere. The EPA works with the Coast Guard on flood control, dredging activities, and shoreline protection. Since 1970, the EPA has worked closely with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a relatively small executive agency which was created pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. Its mission is to advise the president on federal policy and action in the environmental area and to ensure that other federal agencies comply with NEPA. Compliance with NEPA requires all federal agencies to pursue environmentally sound policies and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before undertaking any major action which might significantly affect the environment.

SEE ALSO Environmental Law and Business


Atriano, Vincent. "EPA Issues New Rules Targeting 'Illegal Competitive Advantage.'" Business First-Columbus. 5 November 1999.

Bukro, Casey. "EPA Chief Ties Ecology to Economy." Chicago Tribune. 13 February 1993.

Cole, Carol. "Bush Backs Budget Cuts at EPA; Democrats Vow to Fight." World Fuels Today. 8 February 2006.

Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning up America's act. Greenwood Press. 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "About EPA." Available from http://www.epa.gov/epahome/aboutepa.htm. 1 March 2006.

Hillstrom, Northern Lights

updated by Magee, ECDI