The Snail Darter Case

TVA versus the Endangered Species Act

Kenneth M. Murchison

With the discovery of a tiny fish in a soon-to-be-flooded stretch of the Little Tennessee River, construction on a dam that had already cost taxpayers $100 million came crashing to a halt. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the snail darter was instantly transformed into both an icon for species preservation and a despised symbol of the environmental movement's alleged excesses. The intense legal battle that ensued over its fate was contested all the way to the Supreme Court.

The 1978 decision in TVA v. Hill, the Court's first decision interpreting the Endangered Species Act, remains one of the most instructive cases in American environmental law. Affirming an injunction that prohibited the Tennessee Valley Authority from completing the Tellico Dam because it would eliminate the snail darter's only known habitat, the Supreme Court resolved an intragovernmental dispute between the TVA and the Interior Department as well as the claims of the local opponents of the dam.

“Celebrated as a keystone victory for environmentalism or ridiculed as an example of radical excess, TVA vs. Hill has for three decades served as a central case in American environmental law. In this first book-length treatment of the case, Murchison explores not only the origins and legal ramifications of the decision, but also places it in political, regional, and bureaucratic context. . . . His book provides the first comprehensive treatment of a pivotal moment in Appalachian water history. [It] is thus a building block for understanding of the fundamental changes that took place within the TVA, and the reaction of the emerging environmental movement.

—Appalachian Journal

“The three legal he highlights literally became textbook cases in environmental law. the book’s strengths are its detailed explanations of how the national Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act requirements evolved, and the devastating portrait of the early use (and abuse) of cost-benefit analysis. . . . Succeeds in fairly and succinctly presenting the legal history of the snail darter case. He allows the two sides to speak in their own words, but he offers a nuanced assessment in the final chapter.

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Kenneth Murchison reveals that the snail darter case was just one part of a long struggle over whether the TVA should build the Tellico Dam. He traces disputes over the TVA's mission back to the 1930s and intertwines this with the emergence of federal environmental law in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act, both of which provided a statutory basis for litigating against the dam builders. He continues with an exhaustive analysis of the arguments, deliberations, and decision of the Supreme Court, based largely on original sources, before concluding with a summary of the subsequent congressional actions and administrative proceedings that ultimately allowed the dam's completion. By plumbing the Court's deliberations, the politics behind the law, and the way that law spurred political responses, Murchison clarifies how the story of darter and dam came to exemplify the tensions and conflict between legislative and judicial action.

Even though its players were left with only partial victories, TVA v. Hill helped to define the modern role of the TVA and remains an important chapter in the development of federal environmental law. Murchison helps us better understand this landmark decision, which drew the battle lines for current debates over the environment and the policies that protect or regulate its use.

About the Author

Kenneth M. Murchison is James E. and Betty M. Phillips Professor of Law at Louisiana State University and author of Federal Criminal Law Doctrines: The Forgotten Influence of National Prohibition.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series