Crusade inspired by refinery case
July 30th, 2007
COLUMBIA - Practically everyone in Georgetown knew Jimmy Chandler when he came home for a visit in 1981.
But this wasn't the nice young fellow many folks remembered growing up in the sleepy town. This was a 31-year-old Columbia lawyer fighting an oil refinery that could bring 390 jobs to the small seaport.
How, they wondered, could a guy from such a respected family oppose something so good for the economy?
"They were as mad as they could be at me," said Mr. Chandler, now 57. "I had the editor of the local newspaper tell me I could never come back and live in my hometown. My father even called and asked if I'd lost my mind.
"It wasn't easy."
That initial crusade to protect Georgetown's marshes and waterways from oil pollution eventually led Mr. Chandler in 1987 to start the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, a legal service representing conservation groups and residents.
He's been warring with big corporations, developers and government regulators ever since. His nonprofit law project, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has been involved in virtually every major South Carolina environmental case since its inception, legal observers say.
"I can't say enough about what he has accomplished," said Mary Shahid, former counsel for the state's coastal management agency. "The cases he brings to court are about changes in public policy."
Mr. Chandler could be making a huge salary at a big law firm, representing corporate clients who need environmental permits, Ms. Shahid said. Instead, Mr. Chandler and his tiny organization represent groups such as the Sierra Club or neighborhood associations, often fighting for years for what they believe are worthy causes.
Mr. Chandler charges only what clients can afford to pay toward his expenses. These days, he is representing residents of a rural Allendale County community against a proposed landfill.
Mr. Chandler said he likes being the underdog. "Every case we take, people expect us to lose because we are so overmatched," Mr. Chandler said. "When we win, they are astonished."
The Environmental Law Project started with a budget of less than $30,000 a year; today, its budget is nearly $400,000. Springs textile family member Frances Close, a conservationist, provides about 15 percent of the funding for the Law Project she helped start with Mr. Chandler.
Other organizations, such as the Donnelley Foundation, and hundreds of private citizens also provide money.
Mr. Chandler now has a second lawyer working with him, Amy Armstrong, and a full-time office manager. The law project has handled 140 cases and been involved in about 500 altogether.
Charleston lawyer Ellison Smith said he doesn't take Mr. Chandler's never-quit attitude in court personally. Mr. Smith joked that Mr. Chandler's legal fights have kept cases in court for years - and that's good for business.
"Jimmy has made me ... a lot of money," Mr. Smith said. "This year, I plan to send him a Christmas basket with a ham and turkeys and jams and jellies."
Wayne Beam, the former director of the South Carolina Coastal Council, said Mr. Chandler is a formidable opponent. Mr. Beam has clashed plenty of times with Mr. Chandler, as Coastal Council director and, now, as a private consultant to developers.
"When I was a regulator, he was much easier to deal with than he is now," Mr. Beam said. "The projects I work on, people want to get something done. Jimmy's deal is to keep things from happening for a cause."
As a boy, he spent many days in the tidal creeks and on the beaches of Georgetown.
A Davidson College graduate, he thought he would go home to Georgetown and work at his father's auto dealership. But his father didn't have a job for him when he got out of graduate school at the University of South Carolina. So he went to work on a fishing boat out of Murrells Inlet, a grueling job that convinced him law school was in his future.
Mr. Chandler practiced business law in Columbia until taking up his first environmental case, against the Georgetown oil refinery.
Representing the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, Mr. Chandler eventually lost the case, but his appeal produced results. Politicians, including U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings of Charleston, pushed for more studies and the refinery ultimately was defeated.
By then, the Georgetown residents had come to accept Mr. Chandler's initial fight against the refinery.
"We finally convinced a majority of the people that it was really not as good an idea as they thought," he said.
S.C. ENVIRONMENTAL LAW PROJECT
Columbia lawyer Jimmy Chandler started the South Carolina Environmental Law Project in 1987 after an effort to protect the marshes of Georgetown, S.C., from an oil refinery.
Supported by Springs textile family member Frances Close and charitable foundations, Mr. Chandler's group in the past 20 years has done the following:
Helped win a 15-year legal fight to close a hazardous waste landfill at Lake Marion, operated by Laidlaw/Safety Kleen Corp.
Won a landmark case that kept developers from converting marshes to open water lakes in Georgetown County. The case helped set precedent, preventing similar dredging elsewhere.
Helped reduce industrial discharges of dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical, into Winyah Bay near Georgetown.
Won a case this year that reinforces the public's right to sue the Department of Health and Environmental Control for failing to enforce coastal protection laws.
Settled a case that scaled back development proposed for the salt marsh in Cherry Grove. The settlement resulted in creation of a public park on land originally scheduled for development.