William McKinley President Monument

Reading from the Book of Genesis of environmental law

Several very old laws are the forebears of 21st Century practice...for better or worse.

I've been writing about the environment for years, but here are three presidents I don't think I've ever mentioned: James Monroe, Chester Alan Arthur, and William McKinley.


Each signed versions of a law that morphed—by McKinley's time—into a cornerstone environmental law.

In 1824, Monroe signed the first of more than a dozen laws called the Rivers and Harbors Act.

This is the time in history when the possibly-mythical Johnny Appleseed was planting trees throughout "the West" (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana) at a time when said trees went largely un-hugged.

For the rest of the 19th Century revisions of the Act focused on clearing navigable streams and ports for commercial ships and barges. No laws directly addressed increasing filth—sewage, trash, industrial waste—that a growing America placed in its waterways.

Renewed and bolstered every few years, the Act saw a thorough upgrade during Arthur's three years as president. But it didn't get around to actually protecting rivers and harbors till an 1899 update.

Also called the Refuse Act, it was the first time that dumping waste into waterways carried a criminal penalty.

Violators faced a maximum $2,500 fine or one year's imprisonment. With the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency still some 71 years away, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with enforcing the law and issuing permits to those who really, really needed to dump into waterways.

Sewage treatment was still virtually unheard of. The first American chemical treatment plants opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, and East Orange, New Jersey, around 1890, according to www.sewerhistory.org, the gold standard in poop news.

Storm and sanitary sewage ran virtually unabated into waterways for many more years. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948) pulled together more serious enforcement. It was remade as the Clean Water Act in 1972. Richard Nixon vetoed the ambitious bill as too expensive, but bipartisan environmental sentiment resulted in an override.

The Act has never realized its optimum goal of "fishable, swimmable" waterways from coast to coast, but it's regarded as a roaring success in otherwise living up to its name.

Important precursors

National Monuments Glen Canyon

The Antiquities Act has been a presidential tool in protecting National Monuments. (Credit: anokarina/flickr)

John Lacey was an Iowa Congressman who pre-dated Teddy Roosevelt as a Republican conservationist.

He was instrumental in passing the Forest Reserve Act in 1891, creating the precursors to U.S. National Forests. Concern over some of America's most colorful birds vanishing led to the Lacey Act of 1900. The law restricted international trade in species, and is credited with reversing the trend of converting bright plumage into the trendy women's hats of the day. It's also a precursor to the Endangered Species Act.

In 1906, Lacey championed the Antiquities Act. Originally intended to preserve Native American sites in the Southwest from tourists and artifact hunters, presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Obama have used the Act to create sizable National Monuments, like Bears Ears, a sprawling Utah site designated by President Obama but reduced in size by President Trump.

Air pollution was left largely to state and local governments until 1955, when President Eisenhower signed the Air Pollution Control Act. Major re-writes evolved and strengthened the law in 1965 and 1991.

Let's bring in a fourth 1800's president and two laws he signed in 1872. Ulysses S. Grant gave us the statute now known as the 1872 Mining Law, which allows leasing of some public lands for mining for as little as $5 an acre.

Little has changed in a century-and-a-half, and hard-rock miners can claim an acre of federal land for the price of a bag of Doritos. And the U.S. is a permissive landlord, imposing minimal requirements for companies to clean up their messes.

Environmentalists, backed by some budget hawks, have tried for years to get Congress to modernize or rescind the law, with no success.

Sailor mongering 

In 2002, Greenpeace activists boarded a freighter laden with rainforest mahogany. The U.S. Attorney's office used a 19th Century law to prosecute the Greenpeacers, charging them with sailor mongeringunder a law last enforced in 1890. The law was designed to prevent unscrupulous mariners from coaxing landlubbers with women of ill repute and demon rum, then kidnapping them to crew on ocean voyages. A judge dismissed the charges in 2004.

Of course, the laws covering clean air and water, and those protecting species and sensitive lands are all under assault by the Trump Administration, and by the government departments and agencies that were intended to support them.

For all the gains and recent losses in environmental law, these issues have never truly gained a foothold as a major issue in presidential politics.

As Donald Trump tends to say when questioned on just about anything..."We'll see."

Banner photo: William McKinley Monument (Credit: THX0477/flickr)

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences. Contact him at pdykstra@ehn.org or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Navajo Nation gains ground in energy sovereignty as feds deny hydro project permits

Federal authorities have denied permits for hydroelectric projects on Navajo land, marking a significant step in recognizing tribal sovereignty in energy projects.

Noel Lyn Smith and Wyatt Myskow report for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less
biden's administration environmental regulations
Credit: Mark Dixon/Flickr

Biden's administration hurries to finalize environmental regulations before potential threats arise

Supporters fear the possibility of a second Trump presidency and the environmental regulatory rollbacks that would surely follow.

Robin Bravender, Kevin Bogardus, and Michael Doyle report for Politico.

Keep reading...Show less

Global hunger crisis deepens due to climate change and conflicts

The escalating global food crisis, fueled by climate change, extreme weather, and conflicts, is pushing millions into hunger and malnutrition, signaling an unprecedented challenge in global food security.

Abdulkareem Mojeed, Priscilla Misiekaba-Kia, Vitor Alexandre Araujo Prado dos Anjos report for Mongabay.

Keep reading...Show less

Florida farmworkers spearhead nation's most stringent heat safety measures in agriculture

In Florida, farmworkers have pioneered the strongest workplace heat protections in the U.S., setting a new standard for labor safety in agriculture.

Nicolás Rivero and Eva Marie Uzcategui report for The Washington Post.
Keep reading...Show less
SF bay air quality risks
Credit: Larry C Photography/BigStock Photo ID: 386386015

San Francisco Bay area homes face high air quality risks

Every home in the Bay Area is at high risk of experiencing poor air quality due to wildfires, a stark contrast to its status as one of the most expensive housing markets.

Christian Leonard reports for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.