The Real Story of the (In)famous Snail Darter Case

In its 1978 decision in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Endangered Species Act prohibited the closure of a dam on the Little Tennessee River.   The absence of free flowing water, the Court decided, would jeopardize the continued existence of the snail darter, a small fish that lived only in that part of the river.   But the citizens and farmers–who brought the case to protect their livelihoods against a public works boondoggle–still lost.

Professor Zygmunt Plater, professor of law at Boston College who was the lead lawyer in the case, told the story at Widener’s Harrisburg, Pennsylvania campus on April 8.  His memorable presentation was at times moving, humorous, and sobering.  A recording is available here.

Congress subsequently amended the law to provide that a special “God Committee” could let the project go ahead if it were important enough to justify the eradication of the species.  But the Committee found that even the remaining costs of the project (it was mostly completed at the time) exceeded its total benefits.  Then, because of a late-night amendment to appropriations legislation, Congress subsequently exempted this project from the act altogether, and the dam was closed.     Project advocates framed the case  as “little fish vs. big dam” and environmental extremism, and the media bought into those frames.

Professor Plater, who is also the author of the recently published book, The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River (Yale University Press 2013), pointed out that this is not the first or only time when the facts didn’t count in the public debate over an environmental issue.  Climate disruption is another example.  The recently released reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Climate Assessment, which provide the most sobering account of climate change yet, may or may not prompt a greater public demand for action.  Still, one thing is clear from his story: an engaged citizenry doesn’t guarantee victory, but victory is impossible without it.   His story is a tribute to perseverance and principle in the face of daunting odds, and he and his clients nearly won.

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