Underdog lawyer puts up good fight
July 29th, 2007
By SAMMY FRETWELL
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 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, Chandler said — eventually led Chandler to start the S.C. Environmental Law Project in 1987, a legal service representing conservation groups and citizens.
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 S.C. 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.”
Chandler could be making a huge salary at a big law firm, representing corporate clients who need environmental permits, Shahid said.
Instead, Chandler and his tiny organization represent groups like the Sierra Club or neighborhood associations, often fighting for years for what they believe are worthy causes.
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.
Chandler said he likes being the underdog.
It’s not unusual for him to arrive in court — clad in khakis, loafers and a sport coat — to find he’s opposed by a team of blue-suited lawyers and their staff.
“Every case we take, people expect us to lose because we are so overmatched,” Chandler said. “When we win, they are astonished.”
‘KEEP THINGS FROM HAPPENING’
Supported by Springs textile family member Frances Close and charitable foundations, Chandler’s Environmental Law Project has in the past 20 years:
- Helped win a 15-year legal fight to close a hazardous waste landfill at Lake Marion, operated by Laidlaw/Safety Kleen Corp. At one point, Laidlaw had one of the most powerful politicallobbies in South Carolina.
- Won a landmark case that kept developers from converting marshes to open water lakes in Georgetown County. Chandler’s organization beat developers of the Willbrook Plantation, near Pawleys Island, on their dredging plan in the 1980s. 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 case was a contentious issue for more than 20 years and involved ex-U.S. Rep. John Jenrette. The settlement resulted in creation of a public park on land originally scheduled for development.
The Environmental Law Project started with budget of less than $30,000 a year; today, its budget is nearly $400,000. Close, a conservationist, provides about 15 percent of the funding for the Law Project she helped start with Chandler. Other organizations, such as the Donnelley Foundation, and hundreds of private citizens also provide money.
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.
As with his fight against the oil refinery, Chandler has irked plenty of people seeking environmental permits from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Several years ago, his Georgetown office burned in a fire that some people thought was suspicious. Investigators determined the fire started from old wiring after a lightning strike, Chandler said. “None of the people I’ve dealt with are smart enough to have torched it and made it look like an electrical fire,” he said.
Charleston lawyer Ellison Smith said he doesn’t take Chandler’s never-quit attitude in court personally. Smith joked that Chandler’s legal fights have kept cases in court for years — and that’s good for business.
“Jimmy has made me one hell of a lot of money,” Smith said. “This year, I plan to send him a Christmas basket with a ham and turkeys and jams and jellies.”
Because he has been on the job so long, Chandler often knows more about state environmental laws than many of the regulators he grills in court.
Wayne Beam, the former director of the S.C. Coastal Council, said Chandler is a formidable opponent. Beam has clashed plenty of times with 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,” Beam said, declining to elaborate. “The projects I work on, people want to get something done. Jimmy’s deal is to keep things from happening for a cause.”
‘DO WE NEED 10 MORE JIMMY CHANDLERS?’
Chandler lives at Pawleys Island with his wife, Rebecca, and their 13-year-old daughter, Leigh.
Aside from watching his daughter’s softball games and teaching her to play guitar, one of his favorite pastimes is guiding his small boat through the salt marsh for a day of fishing.
As a boy, he spent many days in the tidal creeks and on the beaches of Georgetown County. His mother used to row her children through the marshes of Pawleys Island to catch crabs. His uncle gave Chandler his first boat when he was eight.
Still, Chandler never expected to be one of South Carolina’s top defenders of the environment.
A Davidson College graduate, he thought he eventually 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 the younger Chandler went to work on a fishing boat out of Murrells Inlet, a grueling job that convinced him law school was in his future.
Chandler practiced business law in Columbia from 1977 until taking up his first environmental case, against the Georgetown oil refinery.
Representing the S.C. Wildlife Federation, Chandler eventually lost the case — but his appeal produced results. Politicians, including U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings of Charleston, pushed for more environmental studies and the refinery ultimately was defeated. By then, the Georgetown residents had come to accept 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. Close then hired Chandler — whom she calls “my lifeline” — to work on nuclear cases before they founded the Environmental Law Project in 1987. Close said she’s been glad to provide money for the Law Project through the years because its work is vital.
“It is of tremendous importance,” she said. “He’s so talented and does his job in such a good way, it’s worth supporting.
“Do we need 10 more Jimmy Chandlers? Yes.”
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.
ABOUT JIMMY CHANDLER
Head of the S.C. Environmental Law Project
Residence: Pawleys Island
Family: Married to Rebecca McCarthy Chandler; daughter, Leigh
Occupation: Founder, president and general counsel for the S.C. Environmental Law Project
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Davidson College; master’s degree in business, University of South Carolina School of Business; juris doctorate, University of South Carolina School of Law