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Environment: Law project’s work evolves, but underdog status remains

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Amy Armstrong was having a little trouble getting her wheelchair up the ramp leading to the makeshift stage on the lawn at Hobcaw House during the South Carolina Environmental Law Project’s fourth annual Wild Side celebration this fall.

Nobody rushed to help. Most people attending knew that No. 1, she didn’t want it, and No. 2, she didn’t need it.

Armstrong, SCELP’s general counsel, has become the face of the program through circumstances she never could have imagined. She has followed “Seven Habits for Highly Effective People” author Stephen Covey’s game plan. She is not a product of her circumstances; she is a product of her decisions.

When a car wreck at age 25 left her unable to walk, Armstrong arrived at her life’s crossroads. She had been working for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, managing a population of red cockaded woodpeckers at Sand Hills State Forest in Chesterfield County. She tramped through the woods, counting and banding birds.

“When I was in the hospital,” she said, “it was too difficult for me to imagine not being able to walk. I told my parents if I’m not walking in a year I’m going to kill myself. I’m not going to live in a wheelchair. I wouldn’t be able to. It seemed opposite of everything that I was. I was climbing trees and romping around in the woods. It was hard to envision life that was a different way.”

When her parents said they would give anything to trade places with her, Armstrong began to think about what really matters. “The part that helped me think about the loss,” she said, “was figuring out what gives life meaning. At the end of the day, what are the most important things? Relationships with people, my family and friends are. If we were alone on this planet, it would not be worth living. My parents were amazing, and I realized how important they were to me and how much they loved me.”

The same was true for her siblings and friends who visited the hospital. “I was really fortunate to have those people in my life,” Armstrong said. “They looked at me the same. The harder part was people that didn’t know me before the accident. They treat me differently because that’s what they see.”

Bo Ives, president of the Winyah Chapter of the Sierra Club and a constituent of SCELP for almost 30 years, said Armstrong reinvented herself. “Still,” he said, “her core values remained the same.”

Practicing environmental law was Armstrong’s goal when she went to the law school at the University of South Carolina. She told her parents that she planned on moving to Washington, D.C., because that’s where the jobs were. Jimmy Chandler had been on his own for 11 years and wasn’t hiring, but Armstrong felt SCELP was the place for her after interning here in 1999. She won a two-year fellowship from the National Association for Public Interest Law — it’s called Equal Justice Works now — and with her base salary paid Chandler gave her a job. A matching grant from the Donnelley Foundation helped with her benefits. “That’s how I started,” she said.

SCELP was the only environmental law organization in South Carolina when she started as a lawyer in 2002. “This was it,” Armstrong said, “the only place to go. Jimmy was the one who was really the grandfather of environmental law — or the godfather. It was natural to come down here. I did envision I would stay here long term because I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

She arrived for work just as Chandler was finishing the repairs on SCELP’s new headquarters, his grandparents’ home on Highmarket Street that had been heavily damaged by fire. He let Armstrong pick out the paint and light fixtures for her new office.

Living near the beach was a bonus, she said. “I remember looking for houses with my mom,” she said. “Nancy Bracken was selling real estate but wasn’t able to find anything in my price range in Georgetown and said we’d have to look up in Pawleys Island. Darn! Right? Mom and I were driving up and passed a sign that said Pawleys Island and I said, ‘Mom, my address is going to be Pawleys Island!’” When her sister came to see the new house off the South Causeway, she couldn’t believe how close it was to the beach. She lived there for 11 years before moving across Highway 17 to Hagley.

Armstrong proved adept in areas where Chandler needed help most: fundraising, organization and any type of change. “It was never the legal work,” she said. “He was real hesitant when we started our Facebook page. We had been using the same donor software for decades. I suggested changing it, but he had no interest. He knew the system, and it was fine. He was very cautious about everything.”

With Armstrong’s fundraising ability, SCELP’s budget began to grow. That didn’t mean there wouldn’t be hard times. “SCELP got to some really low points when Jimmy was still around,” Armstrong said. “We thought we might have to shut our doors. We had one particularly difficult time when we had $5,000 in our operating account. I wasn’t sure how we’d make payroll. The tide has turned, definitely, but there was tossing, turning and some sleepless nights.”

Chandler didn’t plan on dedicating his life to environmental law. “When he started the Environmental Law Project,” Armstrong said, “he called it a project because he thought it was going to be short-lived. He thought it would be the oil refinery proposal on the Sampit. Then there was impounding of the rice fields on the Santee Delta. There were a couple big cases he took on where DHEC was making these bad decisions, and he would fight them on it to get them on the right path, start seeing the light, and then he’d go on to something else. It didn’t turn out that way, right? Agencies seem to continue to make decisions contrary to rules that protect the resources. It just kept going. We’re on that same continuum. Jimmy’s approach was the same as I take now: If we can resolve a dispute without going to court, we’d rather do that.”

Chandler was proud to have worked to preserve The Reserve golf course’s natural surroundings. Armstrong stayed out of court and helped the Lowcountry Open Land Trust buy 42 acres surrounding the Angel Oak near Charleston after a developer went bankrupt.

“We are always the underdog,” Armstrong said. “In almost every single case we are going against well-funded, high-powered law firms, McNair, Nexsen Pruitt and Carlyle, with top lawyers. We can’t ever match their funding. We always — Jimmy instilled this in me and I would never veer from it — put out the highest quality work that we can. That’s been the constant of SCELP ever since I’ve been here. He was a man of integrity. To match those big firms and big dollars, we have to strive to be as effective as we can, to make sure we are putting out the very best we can.”

Ives said the national Sierra Club has remained a big fan of SCELP under Armstrong’s leadership. “We are really proud of the work she has been doing,” he said. “The number of times she has been before the state Supreme Court and prevailed is astounding.”

Armstrong said she uses her own version of WWJD: What Would Jimmy Do? Remembering his death still brings her to tears. “We were very hopeful that he was going to live a lot longer,” she said. The staff thought he had just hit a rough spot when he went into Waccamaw Hospital for a week. “They put him on a respirator after he got a staph infection in his lungs,” she said. “That was the turning point. When I saw him, I knew he was not going to make it. You don’t pull back from something like that. I told him that I had really learned a lot from him and I valued him as a mentor and we’d keep SCELP going, keep doing the work.”

Chandler died in August 2010, and Georgetown Presbyterian Church was packed with dignitaries for his funeral. But it didn’t feel right for Armstrong. Georgetown Presbyterian, she said, was his parents’ church with a pastor that didn’t know him personally preaching a service. “I sat there,” Armstrong said, “and thought to myself, ‘This is not Jimmy.’ It was really frustrating to me. That wasn’t how he would like to be remembered. It wasn’t him at all.”

She and a number of friends wanted to do something more to honor him. “That’s why we decided to go to Hobcaw, do something beautiful outside that reflected who he was. Wild Side was a lot of fun, a good way to remember Jimmy, and it became a valuable fundraising tool.”

Armstrong added a third attorney last year but tries to keep SCELP focused on issues most critical to the environment. “It’s no doubt there is more work to be done than three lawyers and a staff person can handle,” she said. “We can’t take all the issues that come along. We try to focus on things most pressing and critical where we are not duplicating someone else’s efforts. I wish I could say there wouldn’t be a need for this.”

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