In 1973, a three-inch fish sparked a controversy around the Endangered Species Act, taking the Tennessee Valley Authority all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
More than 50 people took advantage of the opportunity to learn about what that three-inch long snail darter, the TVA and environmental regulation had in common at Thursday's Baker Center Energy and Environmental Forum.
Zygmunt Plater, professor of law at Boston College Law School, gave a presentation entitled, "The Biggest Environmental Law Case in Twentieth Century Tennessee ... and Where Was the Press? The Little Endangered Snail Darter versus TVA's Tellico Dam."
Plater explained how the TVA started construction on the Tellico Dam in 1967 but was delayed when the snail darter, an endangered fish species, was found upstream. Initially the dam construction was stopped under the Endangered Species Act but was later finished after Congress made an exception for the Tellico Dam. There was hardly any media coverage over the controversy.
Plater, one of the litigators in the subsequent lawsuit, said in his presentation that media coverage would have changed the outcome of the case.
"... My proposition to you is this: if the media had ever covered this story in terms of its real facts, the river would still be flowing today," he said.
Plater said that the infamous case illustrates the importance of the media as the "fourth branch" of government.
"The media has incredible effect," Plater said. "It's what the public doesn't know, that lets them (Congress) go forward ... If the public knows, then they will respond ... we never got an investigative story into any of the case's elements."
Jacob LaRiviere, an assistant professor in the department of economics, said he hoped that students saw how a piece of Tennessee history was a major player in environmental regulation policy.
"(I hope that students learned) about the challenges and tradeoffs associated with environmental regulation, (and about a part of) East Tennessee history that played out on a national stage," LaRiviere said.
LaRiviere also emphasized the opportunities that students had at the event. A chance to interact with the main participants in a case that went to the Supreme Court and shaped the future of environmental law in the U.S. offered the gathered crowd a fresh perspective on future environmental regulation.
The lecture was a part of the Baker Center Energy and Environmental Forum. The forum contributes to the Baker Center's continuing effort to engage the campus and larger community on energy and environmental policy topics.