Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Zygmunt J. B. Plater's "The Snail Darter and the Dam"

Zygmunt J. B. Plater is professor of law and director of the Land & Environmental Law Program at Boston College Law School. He chaired the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Legal Research Task Force, is lead author of an environmental law casebook, and has participated in numerous citizen environmental initiatives. He lives in Newton Highlands, MA.

Plater applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River, and reported the following:
This is easy: Page 99 of The Snail Darter & the Dam is indeed representative of the grab and pace of the story and its essential challenges: Page 99 is a sex scene of heavy petting and copulation of two individuals quite small in stature—they are two-inch fish.

The scene takes place on videotape in a courtroom. A small group of citizens is defending the endangered “snail darters” threatened by Tellico, the last of 68 dams being built in Tennessee by the federal TVA.

The agency justified the small, non-hydroelectric dam by forcing condemnation of 40 square miles of 300 family farms, allegedly for profitable re-sale and development by a Fortune 500 company—which will never happen.

In our modern political system, the only practicable way for the farmers, fishermen, and local environmentalists to force a common-sense economic review of the destructive project is to block it in court.

If the dam portion of the Tellico project truly endangers the fish’s survival, it violates the Endangered Species Act. So the citizens must prove that the fish requires a cool, clear, flowing river, not a muddy dammed impoundment. A biology graduate student with an underwater videocamera throws images on the courtroom wall. Page 99 features his description of the two little figures in their watery boudoir; the little fish need clean, scoured gravel, not a dam’s mud, to hold their fertilized eggs.

The video is convincing: the dam endangers the fish. The darter wins in the Supreme Court and in an intensive economic review proving that river-based uses offer more economic benefits than the agency’s cockamamie dam plan. It subsequently requires dirty pork politics and lousy press coverage to override the fish and its river….

The reverberations of the snail darter case continue to raise important and annoying questions about how facts are processed by government and media—and the “silly fish” caricature is still regularly used by agenda-driven pundits to put down environmental protection laws and progressive regulation.

Only in America could a little group of citizens so lacking in money and power have carried a battle so far and so high. The darter’s true story and its democratic precedents remain extremely significant to public thinking today.

And none of it would have gone beyond that Tennessee courtroom if the judge hadn’t been convinced of the little fish’s endangerment by the sex tape on Page 99.

From Page 99:
… (Chuckles echo through the courtroom, as a hundred pairs of eyes peer intently into the watery boudoir.)

“Now he’s doing a tail-wagging movement to get her attention off me...

“Now he is dropping down on her, coming over her left hindquarter here...” (A hush falls on the crowd.)

“Now onto her right quarter,... you see him place his left pectoral fin, in a cross-over maneuver, and he is stroking the tail of her body with his pectoral,... but, oops, she moves away...

“Coming up now is very heavy courtship again, and possible spawning, I think... They’re moving in unison... Oh no, she moved away again...

“Now they go through the same maneuver again, he’s stroking her with his left pectoral, then crossing over to her other side..

“Now there, see!... A violent quivering of her body. And he’s waving his anal fin very violently,... now he’s moving the sand around for egg deposit!...

“Okay, that’s the end of it. You can turn on the lights.”

The courtroom observers let out the collective breath they’ve been holding. Starnes explains that this is not just an aquatic sex tape, and it’s not just a gambit to build empathy for the cute fish couple frolicking around in the pebbles of the river bottom. The video vividly highlights the special breeding conditions needed by this species. While filming, hunched over in the current, he’d had to struggle to hold his camera steady over the little couple in two and a half feet of fast-moving crystalline water.

The video clearly shows the clean bottom pebbles and sand that would catch hold of the microscopic eggs as they squeezed out of the female and were squirted with milt from the male. If the river current stopped, he said, or if muddy water and silt settled onto this shoal, the darters’ eggs sticking to substrate gravels there would lose their flow of oxygen, and suffocate.

“In my opinion,” concludes Starnes, “this is the only significant breeding population of this darter that we know of. If the reservoir is completed it will be completely exterminated.”

TVA’s lawyers’ strategy on cross-examination is to score points however they can. They elicit the admission that TVA has graciously funded Starnes’s studies of the darter. Under questioning, Etnier and Starnes both readily admit they personally oppose completion of the dam….
Learn more about The Snail Darter and the Dam at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue