Our Legal History

The Exxon Valdez oil spill stimulated passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990
The Exxon Valdez oil spill stimulated passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Our Legal History

Since the 1970s, Congress has enacted federal laws to protect and address harm to natural resources:

  • 1977: The Clean Water Act authorized the federal goverment to regulate both the direct and indirect discharge of pollutants into the nation's water. It also authorized the government to recover the costs of restoring natural resources harmed by unlawful discharges.
  • 1980: The Superfund law authorized the federal government to clean up hazardous waste sites and spills.
  • 1990: The Oil Pollution Act gave NOAA and others the authority to address impacts to natural resources caused by oil spills and actions taken to respond to or prevent an oil spill.  
  • 1988:Amendments to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act gave NOAA the authority to address physical and other impacts to resources in National Marine Sanctuaries.

These laws make clear that those responsible for environmental harm are responsible for the costs of restoring the environment to the condition it was in before it was harmed. They must also compensate the public for the losses that occur while natural resources recover.

NOAA’s Role

Congress directed the President to designate specific agencies as natural resource “trustees,” charged with protecting and restoring specific natural resources. NOAA is the primary federal trustee for marine and coastal resources.

The resources we are entrusted with include:

  • Marine fisheries;
  • Fish, such as salmon, that spawn in freshwater and migrate to the sea;
  • Endangered and threatened marine species (e.g., sea turtles);
  • Marine mammals;
  • Wetlands, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and other habitats;
  • All resources associated with National Marine Sanctuaries and National Estuarine Research Reserves.