The environmental impact of human innovation has resulted in the decline of certain species. Deforestation causes various animals to lose their habitats. Industrial fishing has negatively impacted the conditions of the ocean. Due to this alarming development, the U.S. government legislated the Endangered Species Act. The Act has helped protect thousands of threatened and endangered species. It was a step forward to help save the environment from destructive human activities. However, the Act received various amendments before it became what it is today.

One of the factors that caused the government to amend the Endangered Species Act was the Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al. case. The case was about the snail darter, an endangered fish species living in the Little Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority was constructing the Tellico Dam in the area along the Little Tennessee River. The discovery of the endangered species led to the case and the halt of the Tellico Dam construction. The case led the U.S. government to conclude that the Endangered Species Act could threaten other high-cost projects. This led to amendments that can exempt projects from the Act. This essay will discuss the details of the Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al. and how it resulted in the creation of the Endangered Species Committee or “God Committee”.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 aimed to help protect and conserve threatened and endangered species. The Act aimed to create a program that will oversee the conservation of animal and plant species. Endangered Species Act of 1973, 87 Stat. 884, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. (1976) (amended 2020). The government authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the Act. The two agencies have the authority to nominate and list species under the Act. They will also need to develop conservation plans to help the threatened and endangered species recover.

Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al.

The Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al. case revolved around the completion of the Tellico Dam that threatened the snail darter population. The snail darter is an endangered fish species that lived in the Little Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA began the construction of the Tellico Dam along the Little Tennessee River in 1967. This was years before the legislation of the Endangered Species Act which was in 1973.  The Tellico Dam project was supposed to help shoreline development, provide electricity, control flooding, and improve the economic conditions around the area. Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al., 437 US 157, (1978). The U.S. government provided funding for the project to help improve the region’s economic stability.

The TVA v. Hill Et Al. case presented two questions. The first is whether the Endangered Species Act requires a court to stop the completion of the Tellico Dam. The TVA began the construction of the Dam before the legislation of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This raised the question of the Act applying to the particular project. The second question refers to the fact that Congress continued to provide funds for the operation despite the ongoing cases. The TVA argued that Congress’ action of providing funds suggests the repealing of the Act. Hill Et Al., 437 US at 156. These questions were not only important to this particular case but resulted in the creation of the “God Committee” in the Endangered Species Act.

Before the TVA v. Hill Et Al. case, the TVA faced a lawsuit from local citizens and environmental conservation groups. The citizens and conservationists asked TVA to consider alternative methods of producing energy instead of building the Tellico Dam. However, the TVA insisted on completing the construction of the Dam. The citizens then claimed that the TVA did not follow the requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This Act aimed to prevent environmental damage and preserve the health of the citizens. National Environmental Policy Act, 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (1969). The District Court found the TVA guilty of violating the Act which led to the temporary halt of the Tellico Damn operation. However, the TVA submitted a final environmental impact statement that persuaded the District Court on their side. Environmental Defense Fund v. TVA, 371 F. Supp. 1004 (ED Tenn. 1973). Despite the District Court’s conclusion that the TVA did not violate the law, the Dam’s operation was still in halt until late 1973.

It was during this time when a University of Tennessee ichthyologist discovered a snail darter in the Little Tennessee River. The ichthyologist was an acquaintance of Hiram Hill who was one of the case’s plaintiffs. Hiram Hill told Zygmunt Plater, his law professor, about the discovery. The news also caught the attention of various groups — environmental conservationists, the federal government, and the TVA. The snail darter’s population ranged from 10,000 to 15,000 which meant that it was critically endangered. Hill Et Al., 437 US at 159. This was the foundation of the TVA v. Hill Et Al. case where Hiram Hill, Zygmunt Plater, and Donald Cohen became the official plaintiffs.

The discovery led the Secretary of the Interior to declare the Little Tennessee River as a “critical habitat” for the snail darter. A “critical habitat” is a specific geographical area that a threatened or endangered species occupy. 16 U.S.C. § 1532 (1976) (amended 2020). The declaration affected the operation of the Tellico Dam. Communication between the TVA and the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the relocation of the snail darter population can lift the “critical habitat” status of Little Tennessee. Hill Et Al., 437 US at 171. The TVA considered relocating the species to the Hiwassee River. However, the Secretary of Interior did not allow the relocation due to a lack of evidence regarding the viability of the Hiwassee River to house the snail darter.

The disapproval resulted in the continued delay in the Tellico Dam project. However, in one of the hearings, the TVA argued that the Endangered Species Act does not apply to projects that are over 50% finished during the effectivity date of the Act. They reiterated that the project was around 80% complete during the listing of the snail darter as an endangered species. They also reminded the Committees that they put the effort into the relocation of the snail darter. Hearings on Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriation Bill, 1976, before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 7, pp. 466-467 (1975) (Statement of Aubrey J. Wagner, TVA Chairman); Hearings on H. R. 8122, Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1976, before a Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 4, pp. 3775-3777 (1975) (Statement of Aubrey J. Wagner, TVA Chairman).

The argument allowed the TVA to resume the Tellico Dam operations. The project also received $29 million and later, $9 million to aid in the project’s completion. Hill Et Al., 437 US at 164 & 167.  The funding that the TVA received came from the court which was the basis for the argument regarding the court’s implied repealing of the Endangered Species Act. In January 1977, however, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and temporarily halted the Tellico Dam’s operation once more. The Court of Appeals noted that the TVA violated § 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The initial operations of the TVA failed to ensure the safety and conservation of the snail darter and its habitat. Hill Et Al., 437 US at 168. The Court neglected the appeal of the TVA and proceeded to halt their operation on Little Tennessee River.

The TVA representatives continued to support the Tellico Dam project. They stated that the Tellico Dam is virtually complete and is ready to operate. Hearings on Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriation Bill, 1978, before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 4, p. 234 (1977). With the continued argument of the TVA, the House Committee suggested that they should cooperate with the Department of the Interior regarding the relocation of the snail darter. Congress gave the TVA $2 million to aid in the relocation effort for the snail darter. Hill Et Al., 437 at 171. 

The TVA v. Hill Et Al. case concluded with a 6 - 3 decision answering “Yes” to the two questions that the case presented. The majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the Endangered Species Act prohibits the continued operation and completion of the Tellico Dam. The Court also agreed that the continued government funding for the Tellico Dam project was not an implication of repealing the Endangered Species Act. This conclusion showcased the authority that the Endangered Species Act had on private and public businesses. This resulted in the amendment of the Endangered Species Act which introduced the God Committee.

The God Committee

The Endangered Species Committee or God Committee are government representatives from various departments. The Committee is composed of nine members from environmental, wildlife, agriculture, and economic, and state departments. The Committee has the authority to change the list of threatened and endangered species. They can decide if an area is a “critical habitat”. 10 V.S.A. § 5404. The Committee can also exempt a project from the restrictions of the Endangered Species Act (Cain & Kaiser, 2003). These responsibilities imply that the Committee can decide whether a certain endangered species would continue to exist. 

The TVA v. Hill Et Al. case resulted in the disruption of the Tellico Dam project. The TVA is a federal-owned corporation and the Endangered Species Act was able to halt its operations. The Court and the TVA spent and wasted millions of dollars during the Tellico Dam’s construction and the duration of the case. This showed Congress the scope of the Act and how it could hinder future projects. The God Committee was the government’s solution to the potential economic issue that the Act may cause. 

Conclusion

The TVA v. Hill Et Al. case was an important demonstration of how certain prohibitions can impact both public and private entities. The case led to the formation of the God Committee as it showcased the scope of the Endangered Species Act. It showed that corporations should undergo extensive research methodologies to ensure that their projects do not endanger endemic species and their habitats. The TVA failed to assess the Little Tennessee River ecosystem which caused them to miss the snail darter population living in it. This cost them millions of dollars and the completion of the project. However, the case also highlights how the government prioritizes their needs above the environment. They amended the Act to ensure that it does not disrupt future projects that may threaten the population of an endangered species. Still, the Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs which resulted in an injunction against the Tellico Dam project and the conservation of the snail darter population.

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Reference List

Conservation and Development, Chapter 123. 10 V.S.A. § 5404

Endangered Species Act of 1973, 87 Stat. 884, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. (1976) (amended 2020)

Environmental Defense Fund v. TVA, 371 F. Supp. 1004 (ED Tenn. 1973)

Hearings on H. R. 8122, Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1976, before a Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 4, pp. 3775-3777 (1975) (Statement of Aubrey J. Wagner, TVA Chairman).

Hearings on Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriation Bill, 1976, before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 7, pp. 466-467 (1975) (Statement of Aubrey J. Wagner, TVA Chairman)

Hearings on Public Works for Water and Power Development and Energy Research Appropriation Bill, 1978, before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 4, p. 234 (1977)

National Environmental Policy Act, 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (1969)

Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill Et Al., 437 US 157, (1978)

Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill. (n.d.). Oyez. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1977/76-1701

Cain, L.P. & Kaiser, B.A. (2003). Public Goods Provision: Lessons from the Tellico Dam Controversy. Natural Resources Journal, vol. 43. https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nrj/vol43/iss4/4