Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill
437 U.S. 153 (1978)

  • The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was building the Tellico dam on the Little Tennessee River. After construction had started, the US passed the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. 1351).
    • TVA was building the Tellico dam with Federal money.
  • As construction progressed, researchers found a small endangered fish (the snail darter) that lived in the river upstream of the dam. It was determined that completion of the dam would wipe out the darters.
  • The Department of the Interior (DOI) (and the Secretary of the Interior, Hill) declared the darter to be an endangered species, declared the river to be a critical habitat, and sued for an injunction to stop construction of the dam.
    • Under ESA 7(2), all Federal agencies must ensure that action actions authorized, funded, or carried out by them were not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of such species' critical habitat.
  • The Trial Court found for TVA. DOI appealed.
    • The Trial Court agreed that construction of the dam would most likely result in the extinction of the darter. However, they decided not to issue an injunction.
  • The Appellate Court reversed and issued the injunction. TVA appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the plain language of the ESA required a permanent injunction, for at least as long as the darter was on the endangered species list.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed and upheld the injunction.
    • TVA argued that they should be grandfathered in because the dam was constructed before ESA was passed. However, the US Supreme Court found that the completion of the project required actions to be 'carried out', which was prohibited under ESA 7(2).
    • TVA argued that a balancing approach should be used and the fact that taxpayers had already spent over $100M on the dam should mean that the project shouldn't be derailed by a few fish, but the Court found that Congress intended endangered species to be afforded the highest of priorities and to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost because the value of endangered species was "incalculable."'
      • That would be an absurd result.
    • TVA unsuccessfully argued that Congress had implicitly repealed ESA because they kept appropriating money for completion of the dam even after it was known to be interfering with the critical habitat. However, the courts have traditionally disfavored repeals by implication.
      • Sometimes known as the "dog did not bark" doctrine.
    • The Court did not appear to be happy about this decision, but felt that they were obligated to interpret the laws as written, no matter how dumb they though the law was.
      • "In our Constitutional system the commitment to the separation of powers is too fundamental for us to preempt congressional action by judicially decreeing what accords with 'common sense and the public weal.' Our constitution vests such responsibilities in the political branches."
  • After this case was decided, Congress made significant amendments to the ESA and there is now a provision for granting exemptions.
  • Two years after this case was decided, Congressional proponents pushed through an appropriations rider that expressly authorized completion of the dam notwithstanding the provisions of the ESA. The dam was completed, and the darters died out soon after.
    • The good news is that small populations of snail darters have been found in other rivers.