Amy Armstrong: Protecting the Mountains and Marshes of South Carolina
By Leslie Moore
South Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in the country. In our community, we are able to enjoy beautiful beaches, rivers and marshes that draw many new residents and millions of visitors each year. It is easy to take for granted that this beauty will always remain unspoiled and available for generations to come. Laws are in place, both state and federal, that protect our environment, but implementation and enforcement is ambiguous at best. Since 1987, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP), a non-profit public interest environmental law firm, has worked to protect South Carolina’s natural resources and environment through forceful legal advocacy. Sadly, founder Jimmy Chandler died last summer, leaving behind a formidable legacy of success. But, SCELP was left in the talented and capable hands of Environmental Attorney, Amy Armstrong, who worked side by side with Jimmy since 2002.
I met Amy at the SCELP office, a lovely historic home that has been in the Chandler family for several generations and is leased to SCELP by Jimmy’s heirs. This attractive and fit 40-year old was born in Michigan, but grew up in Columbia, and after graduating from college with a degree in Biology, went to work for the Department of Natural Resources, the perfect job for this outdoorsy young woman. “I spent my days in the woods and loved it. I managed a population of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers.”
While working one day, Amy had an accident that changed her life. “I was driving without my seatbelt on and the truck flipped. I don’t really remember what happened, but we do know that the impact ejected me from the truck, and my body hit a tree and fractured my spinal cord which left me a paraplegic.”
The accident forced Amy to examine her life and make decisions about how to live. “It was hard to imagine my life without being able to run, jump, climb trees and wiggle my toes in the sand…all the things that I’d loved to do. I spent nearly a year researching advances in science and hoping for a cure. But then I realized I had to move on with my life as it exists right now. I also realized that I’m still the same person; though it does take me longer to do things that most people take for granted. For example, I still go to the beach, kayak, swim, take my dog on long walks, most anything I want to do. During my recovery, my mom told me that everyone has painful things in their life that they have to struggle with, mine was just more obvious than most!”
During her recovery, Amy had to move back into her parent’s home. At first it was wonderful to have her mother’s undivided attention – Amy is the oldest of four children. But, it didn’t take long for Amy to want to move on with her life. One of her dad’s good friends is an attorney and suggested that Amy attend law school. With her parent’s support, Amy took the LSAT, applied and was admitted to law school at USC.
“I knew I wanted to do conservation and environmental work and was able to get a joint degree; a Master’s in Environmental Management and my J.D.,” Amy remembers. “I interned at SCELP my first summer in law school and met Jimmy. I was so impressed with his work and learned so much from him. There are not many public interest jobs in South Carolina for Environmental Attorneys; in fact there is only one other organization in South Carolina doing similar work. Bigger cities have lots of environmental lawyers, but I didn’t want to move.”
After passing the bar, Amy asked Jimmy if she could apply for a fellowship that would pay her salary for two years and come work for him. He agreed. “I was really nervous asking Jimmy for the job. What I didn’t realize at that time is that he needed another attorney, but SCLEP is a non-profit and didn’t have the funds to hire another attorney. I later learned that he was very grateful for the ‘free’ help.” After the two years were over, the organization was able to secure funding from donors and grants to continue to keep Amy on staff.
Amy stressed that SCLEP is a non-profit and practices Public Interest Environmental Law. Cases are taken at the request of other organizations like the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, The League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, ad hoc groups, homeowner’s associations and sometimes individuals. As cases are won, precedents are set, increasing the legal protection of our environment. For example, through the efforts of SCELP, isolated wetlands in the eight coastal counties are now protected from dredging and filling, unless there is an overriding public interest, such as a public transportation project. The precedent was set through a case involving a 32-acre tract behind Home Depot in Murrells Inlet. While there is no federal law protecting this type of wetlands, SCLEP asserted that state law does offer protection. After months and countless hours of work on the case, the S.C. Supreme Court agreed.
“After winning this case, Jimmy and I were on a natural high. The rules are not always black and white, but in this situation the rules are very clear, and fortunately the Supreme Court agreed with us,” Amy said.
The last case Jimmy worked on also ended in victory, even though the ruling came after his death. His legal expertise and dedication ensured, through a long and difficult battle in court, that salt marsh can not be filled in for personal gain. “This case was an affirmation of the work Jimmy has done. Filling in salt marsh to increase lot size is illegal, and the S.C. Supreme Court agrees,” Amy explained. In a unanimous decision, the S.C. Supreme Court upheld an enforcement action against a landowner in Heritage Shores in North Myrtle Beach, requiring him to remove the fill, restore the site and pay a $1,000 fine. These cases are hard-won for the SCELP team, but each one ensures that this particular battle will not need to be fought again.
Losing Jimmy was a huge blow to Amy – he had been her boss and mentor – but SCELP has not missed a beat. “I’ve taken on a lot of new roles and it’s an intense amount of work. But we are committed to carrying on Jimmy’s legacy. He wanted us to continue.”
Luckily for Amy, she has help. Attorney Michael Corley now works with SCLEP full-time. He began, like Amy, as a summer intern, and was hired as a staff attorney in September of 2010. “A Supreme Court case requires at least 100 to 150 hours of preparation and we need two attorneys working full-time to keep up. Michael is doing a great job.” The third key player in this team is Administrator, Jordan McDonald, who’s behind the scenes support enables this small office to run smoothly.
SCLEP works on cases throughout the state, and when I asked Amy what she was working on now, she explained that our state is one of three that has a low level, radioactive waste disposal facility. In Barnwell, there’s a radioactive disposal facility that puts waste in trenches, in concrete vaults that are not grouted and have holes in the bottom, allowing radioactive waste to mingle with groundwater that eventually ends up in the Savannah River. SCLEP is challenging this practice and hopes to force the company to securely seal the waste and store it above ground in concrete bunkers. She is also working on a case to protect Captain Sam’s Spit on Kiawah Island. The developer wants to build a half-mile long, 40 foot wide concrete block wall covering nearly three acres of sandy beach along the Kiawah River, and SCELP is working to protect that public beach. SCELP is also involved in legal challenges to three proposed landfills which would allow enormous amounts of out-of-state waste into South Carolina.
Amy does manage to have time for a personal life and a close circle of friends. She lives in Pawleys Island, with a cat and Rufus, her mastiff. “Rufus is my third mastiff. When I was young we dog-sat a friend’s mastiff, and I just clicked with them. They love people and like to be close. Plus, he forces me to take walks with him twice a day!” Amy is also the “favorite” aunt to three nephews and one niece, who she sees as often as possible. But, her work is her true passion.
“I have been blessed to learn from and practice law with the best. Jimmy was the lead legal advocate for the environment, and I am so thankful to have had eight years working alongside him. SCELP is here for the people of South Carolina, and we aim to find a solution for anyone with an environmental problem. Our mission is to support the public, not to make money. This is not a private law firm.”
Amy summed up her philosophy by saying, “Development is necessary and important to our community, but I believe we need to try to fit into our surroundings, not make them conform to us. And, there are ways to do that and retain the unique features of the landscape. I think a great example is the Hammock Shops – it still has trees, parking is spread throughout the area and many of the natural characteristics of the site remain intact. Most of us want to live in a community, not a place that looks exactly like hundreds of others. Let’s do it the smart way – protecting our natural landscape, unique resources and water quality.”
To find out more about the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, call 843-527-0078 or visit www.scelp.org.
About this writer
- Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.