When the General Assembly passed laws 30 years ago recognizing the need to protect our water and air from pollution and our public resources from degradation, everyone recognized the need to protect the public’s interest in healthy communities, but no one was stepping up to ensure the enforcement of the new laws.
As our communities fell victim time and again to problems ranging from rampant dredge-and-fill operations, to hazardous-waste incinerators, beachfront development and dioxin discharged into our waters, Jimmy Chandler knew that serious action needed to be taken. So 30 years ago, he founded the S.C. Environmental Law Project.
I doubt Jimmy, who died in 2010, would have imagined that the law project would still be needed 30 years later — or that it would have accomplished so much along the way.
One of Jimmy’s first efforts was working to close the Pinewood hazardous-waste landfill — and ultimately helped close all the hazardous-waste incinerators in the state.
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The law project brought the first suits establishing citizens’ due process rights to have a hearing over environmental decisions, establishing citizens’ ability to enforce our state’s laws and protect the quality of their environment.
Throughout the past 30 years, the law project has protected such special places as Bohicket Creek, the Angel Oak, Captain Sams Spit and hundreds of wetlands. But we still have more to do.
The protection of natural resources remains a priority for our citizens, but it takes a backseat when decisions are made by our governing bodies, particularly in the face of shrinking budgets for regulatory agencies.
In fact, those who benefit most from the exploitation and degradation of our land, water and air are becoming even more powerful.
Once our natural landscapes and waterways are altered or destroyed, we cannot turn back.
A case in point is the debate over seismic testing and offshore drilling. The oil industry stands to benefit significantly, while the general public would shoulder all of the damage that would inevitably follow. And even when every coastal municipality in South Carolina has passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling, lawmakers such as Sen. Stephen Goldfinch continues to advocate against the interests of his constituents.
Growth and development are part of life, as has been especially evident over the past few decades in our state. But when we neglect and abuse the natural resources that are critical to the health of our community in favor of reckless profit-seeking, we head down a dangerous path from which we cannot recover. Once our natural landscapes and waterways are altered or destroyed, we cannot turn back.
It is difficult to image a world in which our children cannot enjoy the beautiful beaches of South Carolina, explore the plentiful marshes and rivers that meander their way through our entire state or hike the foothills of the Upstate. But our communities and way of life are changing so rapidly that this unimaginable future may be closer to reality than we realize.
As long as we allow greed and shortsightedness to guide our decision-making, those decisions are going to impoverish us all.
The real threats we are facing are offshore drilling, development too close to our beaches at a time when sea levels are rising, excessive water withdrawals from industrial commodity growers and uncontrolled sprawl forever changing our landscape. As long as we allow greed and shortsightedness to guide our decision-making, those decisions are going to impoverish us all.
These environmental problems may seem intractable, and elected officials and their appointees seem determined to double down on pollution and exploitation. But we can still take local action. We need to expand the support for organizations that are fighting for environmental protection, responsible management of natural resources and the welfare these generate for our communities.
Like in S.C. Environmental Law Project’s early days, environmental law in South Carolina remains what Jimmy liked to call a “strange, exciting and confounding field,” one featuring “Southern-fried environmental management, good-ol’-boy political influence, and an outstanding but increasingly threatened environment.”
Case after case and day after day, we keep standing up to these threats. And we will continue to do so for generations to come. If you value your health and the health of your community, take a stand with us to help stop the destruction of our most valuable natural treasures.
Ms. Armstrong is executive director and general counsel to the S.C. Environmental Law Center; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.