A majority of the environmental regulations that took effect in the 1970's and 1980's were developed to address widely publicized incidents that involved impacts to human health and the environment from industrial waste management practices. While early environmental regulations focused on air and water pollution, new regulations increasingly addressed contamination to land.
The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1974 or TSCA, was promulgated largely in response to Rachel Carson's 1963 book Silent Spring, which focused on the wildlife impacts from the accumulation of the pesticide DDT in the environment. In addition to DDT, TSCA regulated the manufacturing, use and disposal of a number of chemicals that were widely-used in building materials before the law took effect. These materials included lead-based paint, asbestos insulation, asbestos mastic (tiles and roofing), and PCB oil (electrical transformers and switches). Obtaining permits for renovations or selling of industrial property usually results in the identification and removal of building materials regulated by TSCA.
The health impacts that occurred after a local school district redeveloped the Hooker Chemical Company's landfill at Love Canal, New York led to the enactment of Superfund legislation. One of the principle purposes of Superfund was to legally establish the liability for the abatement of human health and ecological impacts resulting from chemical releases into the environment. One of the criticisms with this legislation has been the amount of energy spent on law suits and attorneys, as opposed to toxic cleanup. However, until Superfund legislation can be fully tested in the courts and legal precedents can be developed, the "uncertainty" with regulatory interpretations together with the potentially unlimited financial liability has resulted in the legal stalemate that is the focus of Superfund criticism. In future years, the availability of precedent setting cases will more clearly define legal liability and eliminate the legal delays to cleanup.
Superfund exempted petroleum products from its list of regulated chemicals thereby eliminating Superfund liability at petroleum contamination sites. In response largely to leaks from underground storage tanks contaminating groundwater supply wells in Silicon Valley, legislation was passed first locally, then by the state, and finally federal government to regulate the storage of hazardous materials in underground storage tanks. This legislation includes petroleum fuels in the list of regulated chemicals. Underground storage tank regulations required cleanup of leaking underground storage tank sites and the cost of that cleanup often exceeded the value of the property that secured property loans. Lenders than began to require environmental assessments on industrial property before they would make a decision to make a loan.
Extensive regulations governing the handling of hazardous chemicals and hazardous wastes now require industry to report any spills, or unpermitted releases to the environment. Regulations also enable regulators to inspect industrial facilities, and to require investigations of soil and groundwater as part a condition of industrial waste discharge permit conditions. Despite these regulations, and particularly at brownfield sites, abatement of human health and environmental impacts does not occur until the sale and/or redevelopment of the property is imminent.