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INFLUENCERS Powering Local Change on National Environmental Issues FA L L 2 0 1 9 | C O A S TA L C O N S E R VAT I O N L E A G U E |


The Staff Laura Cantral, Executive Director Reed Rayborn, Executive Assistant


Fall 2019

VOL.29 • NO. 2

Lisa Jones-Turansky, Chief Strategy Officer Caroline Bradner, Land, Water & Wildlife Project Manager Emily Cedzo, Land, Water & Wildlife Program Director Jason Crowley, Communities & Transportation Program Director Kaitlin Cornwell, Legal Intern Betsy La Force, Communities & Transportation Project Manager Eddy Moore, Energy & Climate Program Director Lisa Randle, Berkeley County Project Manager COLUMBIA Merrill McGregor, Director of Government Relations Alan Hancock, Energy & Climate Advocacy Director NORTH COAST Erin Hardwick Pate, Office Director SOUTH COAST Rikki Parker, Office Director Juliana Smith, Project Manager

GrowFood Carolina

COVER IMAGE GrowFood Carolina General Manager Anthony Mirisciotta has a new vision for South Carolina’s first local food hub. Photograph by Gately Williams

Offices Charleston 131 Spring Street Charleston, SC 29403 843.723.8035 Beaufort 1212 King Street Beaufort, SC 29902 843.522.1800 Columbia 1219 Assembly Street Suite 202 Columbia, SC 29201 803.771.7102/803.758.5800 Georgetown 709-B Front Street Georgetown, SC 29442 843.545.0403 GrowFood Carolina 990 Morrison Drive Charleston, SC 29403 843.727.0091

Anthony Mirisciotta, General Manager Shaunda Fifer, Director of Sales and Marketing Richard Finne, Driver/Warehouse Assistant Kevin Gilly, Warehouse Operations & Distribution Associate Katie Kuhn, Sales & Marketing Associate Austin Lucas, Warehouse Operations & Distribution Associate Jeff Mitchell, Warehouse Operations & Distribution Associate Benton Montgomery, Operations Manager Caroline Rothkopf, Sales and Marketing Assistant Deirdre Tanner, Sales Support Brita Van Fossen, Sales and Marketing Manager Becca Watson, Farm Coordinator


Diane Knich, Communications Associate Jasmine Gil, Community Outreach Coordinator Catie Lucey, Communications Intern


Nancy Appel, Director of Development Kim Bowlin, Development Manager Stacie Loeffler, Development Manager Kati McArdle, Grants Manager


Tina Allen, Chief Financial Officer Krystal Ryan, Accountant DeAnna Ridley, Bookkeeper


Andy Hollis, Director of Technology and Operations Jamie Roschal, Office Coordinator

Board of Directors

Ceara Donnelley, Chair Katharine Hastie, Vice Chair John Thompson, Secretary Kent Griffin, Treasurer Johnston C. Adams J. Anderson Berly III


Daniel W. Boone III Lee Edwards Cynthia Kellogg W. Jefferson Leath, Jr. Pierre Manigault Jeremiah Millbank III

Diane Knich, Editor Jenny Badman, Contributing Writer Caitie Forde-Smith, Contributing Writer Braxton Crim, Designer Gately Williams, Photographer

Lee Richards Margot T. Rose David Westerlund Stephen Zoukis

Join the Coastal Conservation League in Celebrating 30 Years of Conservation in South Carolina Thursday, November 14, 2019 6:00 p m - 8:00 p m | Refreshments & Remarks 131 Spring Street • Charleston, SC

Dana Beach

RSVP 843.723.8035


Friends, In August, the Trump administration made major changes to how the Endangered Species Act is implemented. South Carolina, our home, is also home to more than 35 threatened and endangered species. The President’s new rules will ignore the effects of climate change on wildlife. They will shrink critical habitats, make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list, and weaken protections for threatened species. So not only are our nation’s leaders failing to take meaningful action on climate change, they’re also rolling back rules that will make it harder for our resources to cope with it. In early September, South Carolina was spared a direct hit by Hurricane Dorian. However grateful we are, in moments like these, we can’t help but think of the ways in which increased threats related to climate change are colliding with development pressures from tourism and population growth. So much seems to be hanging in the balance. That’s why the work of the Coastal Conservation League is more critical now than ever. In the pages ahead, you’ll meet community organizer and political consultant Abe Jenkins, who’s also one of the plaintiffs in our lawsuit against Charleston County’s use of the half-cent sales tax funds for the I-526 extension, as he shares his passion for the people, culture, and land that make Johns Island so special. Learn how Senator Chip Campsen’s love of the


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outdoors, law, and service inspired his strategy that makes the business of offshore drilling tougher and costlier for oil and gas companies. In rural Swansea, Wannelle Lefkowitz shares the story of how leasing her land to a solar company is powering her retirement, land preservation, and her community’s economy. See GrowFood Carolina’s General Manager Anthony Mirisciotta’s vision for the Charleston-based food hub, which to-date has returned $6 million to South Carolina farmers and preserves vital working lands. And, you’ll meet Sarah Kell, a marine biologist whose testing of South Carolina waters for microplastics prompted news coverage, community advocacy, and legislative action. What I hope you’ll take away from these stories is more than just understanding that the work of Coastal Conservation League is a sound investment, but more importantly, that the work we do is impossible without the voices, commitment, and passion of people. People who, like you and like me, love the lands, plants and animals, waters, mountains, and fields that are our home – and ours to champion and protect. I hope you enjoy the read. Please reach out to me at or (843) 723-7016. Thanks for all you do.

Laura Cantral Executive Director

Gately Willaims

To say it was an eventful summer and start to fall is an understatement.

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The 5

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Meet five brave, dedicated people who commit their time, talents and resources to championing and protecting the landscapes, wildlife, water and quality of life in the place we call home. photography by GATELY WILLIAMS

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Standing Up For The Place You Love Johns Island community organizer Abe Jenkins takes a stand — and together with others, takes on I-526. by DIANE KNICH

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be Jenkins experienced much of the world growing up in a military family, but his roots grow deep into Johns Island’s soil. Both of his parents were from the island and he spent long stretches there as a child, working alongside his cousins at the Progressive Club. The club was an activist hub for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, launched by his grandfather Esau Jenkins. Many civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark, Andrew Young, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) visited and participated in workshops there. It was also a co-op with a community grocery store, gas station and day care. And it had classroom space for citizenship schools, where residents developed skills to pass literacy tests that were required before they could vote. “I pumped gas, cut meat, ran the store,” Jenkins said. No matter where he lived in his adult life, the Lowcountry was always home. When he retired from a career in health care in the Philadelphia area about 15 years ago, he came home for good.

He’s concerned about what will happen to Johns Island if the Interstate 526 extension is completed. The road would cross the Stono River from West Ashley, and then cross Johns and James islands before merging with James Island Connector. And, he said, it likely will bring more development, and ultimately more traffic to the island. BAIT-AND-SWITCH

In June, Jenkins joined the Coastal Conservation League and two others as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in South Carolina state court challenging Charleston County’s use of 2016 half-cent sales tax funds for the I-526 extension project. There were many necessary road projects on the list Charleston County Council said would be built with the $2 billion raised by the tax, Jenkins said. And council members assured the public the money wouldn’t be used to extend I-526. So, he voted in favor of increasing the county’s sales tax. Then in January, Charleston County leaders signed a contract with the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and state Department of Transportation, committing more than $300 million in sales-tax funds to I-526. “It was a bait-and-switch type thing,” he said. “It was underhanded and just not honest. I don’t like underhanded, deceitful maneuvering.” Jason Crowley, the Conservation League’s Director of Communities and Transportation, said Jenkins’ involvement is invaluable. “Like his grandfather before him, Abe Jenkins has dedicated himself to be a voice for the people of Johns Island and strives to do what is best to protect the land, people and culture that make it such a special place. When he signed on as a plaintiff in our lawsuit against Charleston County’s use of the half-cent sales tax funds for the I-526 extension, I knew he would have the citizens’ best interests in mind every step of the way.” AN OLD MODEL

Jenkins said it’s difficult to think about people losing their land to make way for the highway extension, especially when it likely won’t reduce traffic congestion. Instead, he said, studies show it will promote sprawl and could create even more traffic. “Building more roads is an old model I’m not sure is relevant in today’s world,” he said. “To move forward without re-evaluating if this still makes sense is crazy.” What’s worse, he said, is that it “appears we’re not doing things that would provide immediate relief,” such as completing the pitchfork — a set of road improvements that would disperse traffic around the 9

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Andy Hollis

Moving Star Hall is a praise house on Johns Island, built around 1917. People connected to Moving Star helped those in need in the Johns Island community. Many of them later became part of the Progressive Club, launched by Esau Jenkins.

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“Like his grandfather before him, Abe Jenkins has dedicated himself to being a voice for the people of Johns Island and to protecting the land, people and culture that make it such a special place. When he signed on as a plaintiff in our lawsuit against Charleston County’s use of the halfcent sales tax funds for the I-526 extension, I knew he would have the citizens’ best interests in mind every step of the way.”

intersection of River Road and Maybank Highway. Crowley said building interstate loops around cities is indeed an old model. For instance, in Milwaukee, WI, the Park East Freeway was removed in 2002 and replaced with an at-grade urban road. And in Portland, OR, the Harbor Drive Freeway was replaced by Tom McCall Waterfront Park in the 1970s. Cities across the country are looking for new ways to create mixed-use areas with housing, commercial space and parks, Crowley said. Cities also are looking to get away from building more car-dependent sprawling suburbs and instead growing in ways that promote public transit and bicycle and pedestrian access. LOVE IS PROGRESSIVE. HATE IS EXPENSIVE.

Jenkins, who now works as a political campaign consultant and organizer, said he and others on Johns Island aren’t opposed to “smart growth.” But they want to maintain the island’s rural character. And many people who live on Johns Island now aren’t aware of its rich civil rights history, he said. He wants that to change. He remembers his grandfather as a visionary who also ran a bus transportation business. Esau Jenkins drove residents to Savannah, Atlantic Beach, and to school and jobs in Charleston. During the commute, 11

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riders were taught to read the part of the U.S. Constitution found on voter registrations, which enabled more African Americans to register to vote. He also gave rides to islanders in his personal 1966 Volkswagen Microbus with his motto “Love is Progressive, Hate is Expensive” on the back panel. That panel is now on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Jenkins and others are working to restore the Progressive Club, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Part of the building will serve as a civil rights museum and another section will offer community services, he said. And organizers also are working with the staff from Charleston’s International African American Museum, which is expected to open in 2021. If visitors to the museum want to learn more about the civil rights era on Johns Island, he said, they can follow-up with a trip to the Progressive Club. Jenkins understands that Johns Island has changed since his childhood. He thinks it can be a beautiful and harmonious place for everyone living there. We need to get beyond the tension between the binyahs and the comeyahs, Jenkins said, using the Gullah words to refer to natives who have “been here” a long time and new residents who have “come here” recently. Now, Jenkins said, “we are all live-heres.”

Abe Jenkins is fighting to protect Johns Island and the Lowcountry in many ways, including joining the Coastal Conservation League as a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Charleston County’s use of half-cent sales tax funds for the I-526 extension.

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Conserving Land, Growing Food & Talking Squash The Coastal Conservation League’s Anthony Mirisciotta, new General Manager for the GrowFood Carolina program, shares his vision for cultivating diversity, extending the growing season and nurturing advocacy. by JENNY BADMAN

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etween 1992 and 1997, every day, more than 400 acres of rural land were converted to urban uses, placing South Carolina in the top ten states in the nation for rural land loss. The Conservation League started its Food and Agriculture program in 2007, with the goal of protecting South Carolina’s small, family farms. Since its launch in 2011, GrowFood Carolina, the state’s first local food hub, has grown from five producers to a network of nearly 100, 300 restaurants, and 25 grocery chains. To-date, the organization has returned $6 million to South Carolina farmers and helped ensure that rural working lands are preserved and continue to flourish.

I walk into the GrowFood Carolina warehouse on a sultry August afternoon where Anthony Mirisciotta, the General Manager since May, is waiting. He greets me warmly and asks if there’s anything in particular I’d like to see before we sit down to chat. I answer his question with a question, “Is there anything you want me to see?” As we walk through the warehouse, he stops at a massive cardboard box. “These just came in today,” he says excitedly. I walk over to see what I think are enormous squash. At first glance, they appear to be a creamy beige color but upon a second look, I see that they are actually more of a light grey-blue. “These are Blue Hubbard squash,” Anthony says. “Look at this one,” he says hefting the mammoth of the bunch up for me to see. “This one has got to be at least 30 pounds!” I am genuinely amazed. “Wow!” is all I’m able to muster. Anthony smiles, places the enormous squash back into the box, and as we walk back to his office, he says, “I really love the Blue Hubbards. They have this amazing earthy, sugary smell.” I’m already scribbling notes as we walk, grateful to spend time with someone who seems able to effortlessly communicate both his sensory experience and passion. Earthy. Sugary. Over the course of the next hour or so, Anthony and I talk about everything — from how he made his way to GrowFood Carolina and subtropical fruits to his last visit home to Pittsburgh and land conservation. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation. His comments have been edited for length and clarity. BUILDING ON A SOLID FOUNDATION

We’re so fortunate that Sara Clow and her team created a solid foundation, and the organization has been so embraced by the community. Since I came onboard in May, I’ve been building relationships with farmers and chefs, and they’ve all been warm and supportive. It’s gratifying to put my experience with small to midsized farmers to work here in South Carolina. We’re nurturing our relationship with the SC Food Hub Network, which is a collaboration among GrowFood, Catawba Farm and Food Coalition (York), and Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery (Greenville). Basically, it helps us all work together to get local food into local markets by capitalizing on one another’s strengths and differences in our seasonality. Our collaboration with Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery continues to be a great example of that 15

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General Manager Anthony Mirisciotta promotes crop diversity and extending the growing season as he works to expand the reach of GrowFood Carolina.

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“In my mind, one of GrowFood Carolina’s greatest accomplishments is that it serves as a national model of a more sustainable food distribution system. What GrowFood has done has the potential to be replicated across the country, and that’s exciting and encouraging.”

partnership in action. When it gets too hot here in Charleston, they’re still growing onions and tomatoes — items that are very much in demand all summer long. When it’s too cold to produce in the Greenville area, there are still many seasonal opportunities in the Lowcountry. This kind of cooperation among food hubs is unique to South Carolina. It’s not happening nationally. CULTIVATING DIVERSITY

I like the idea of being a food explorer, thinking creatively on how to elevate what’s growing here and try new things. We’re trying to build in more crop diversity and bring in more seed varieties that were bred and known for outstanding flavor, and things that we know people will buy, like chickpeas, chicory, field lettuces, radicchio, Early Girl tomatoes and different winter squashes. I’m really interested in trying out tropical and subtropical fruits, like passion fruit, dragon fruit, kiwi, and citrus like yuzu. Even crazy stuff like Szechuan peppercorns. The agricultural history of the Lowcountry is really fascinating. Charleston was once the asparagus capital of the U.S. for several years. Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms told me that potatoes were once the cash crop of Charleston, and primarily all grown on Johns Island. Some of these commodities failed due to weather, and some due to increased national production and competition, and no one really thought to try again. Maybe it’s time! EXTENDING THE GROWING SEASON

I want to extend the growing season because I think it’s possible! Winter and early spring have the potential to be the most productive. Conventional agriculture thought has limited the idea, but there’s so much potential to extend the season with things like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions, carrots, and lettuces. To me, a Charleston winter is very similar to a coastal California summer. We’re sitting on a seasonal goldmine. LEARNING A NEW REGION

Four months after moving to Charleston, I was consulting with Eastern Carolina Organics, an organic produce distributor in Durham, North Carolina, helping with crop production planning and meeting with potential new farmers. That time was really valuable. I worked with more than 40 farmers in the Carolinas and was soaking up everything I could. Learning a new region is like learning a new language. You’re discovering its soil, seasons, pests,

culture, and history. I’ve been fortunate to have experience in five distinctly different regions – Pennsylvania, Vermont, California, North Carolina and South Carolina. HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING

In my first month on the job, we brought on six new growers and are planning with five growers this fall. Some are new to farming and land ownership and that’s exciting. They’re really receptive to new things. We’re also working with other customers to help them distribute and sell their products. We have a local kimchi producer we’re really excited about. We’re also working with Carya Pecan Milk, which is made from South Carolina grown pecans and processed on Johns Island. And, we’re in discussions with Dalai Sofia fermented beverages and a local tortilla vendor. I talk to a lot of farmers who learned to farm from their grandparents and who tell me that without GrowFood Carolina, they wouldn’t still be on their land. Farming is all about relationships and connections, keeping people in the place they love and tend. In my mind, one of GrowFood Carolina’s greatest accomplishments is that it serves as a national model of a more sustainable food distribution system. What GrowFood has done has the potential to be replicated across the country, and that’s exciting and encouraging. THE ROOTS OF ADVOCACY

I grew up in Pittsburgh and was back there a few months ago for a visit. During dinner at a local restaurant, we looked across the street to see them clear-cutting a farm we’d grown up knowing. Now, it’s in the process of becoming a residential community. The farm had this beautiful red barn, and it looked to be the only part of the property that remained. In fact, we found out that the community was keeping the barn and taking the farm’s name as its own. I think about that a lot when we’re talking about land conservation. I didn’t grow up farming, and although my parents say we had a garden, I don’t remember one! But, I became curious about food. How it gets produced. What I put in my body. I cook; I garden. I’m a seed geek and collect all of these heirloom varieties. In fact, I have some newly obtained Kellogg’s Breakfast tomato seeds on my bookshelf that I sourced from a grower’s tomato! They’re a beautiful, orange beefsteak heirloom tomato with a great aroma and an incredible story. That’s the stuff I want to share with everyone. F A L L 2 0 1 9 | C O A S T A L C O N S E R VA T I O N L E A G U E |



Making a Novel Argument Against Offshore Drilling Senator Chip Campsen has a strategy to keep the onshore infrastructure for offshore drilling off the South Carolina coast. by CAITIE FORDE-SMITH

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he governor, attorney general and a bipartisan group of local and state leaders surrounded Chip Campsen at the podium as he unveiled a new strategy to stop offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina. Earlier that spring, South Carolina Representatives had advanced two resolutions to the House floor, one for and one against the Trump administration’s proposal to drill. The Republican Senator had drafted his own bill, but it had stalled in committee. Threats of a final drilling plan from Washington loomed, and at least one company had submitted a bid to begin seismic testing off our coast. For much of the session, Senator Campsen had kept a final option in his back pocket — a one-year, Hail Mary budget proviso designed to block the onshore infrastructure needed to support offshore drilling. For years, Campsen delayed bringing drilling to a vote, fearful that the grassroots movement led by the Coastal Conservation League, cities and towns, and South Carolinians hadn’t yet reached the Statehouse. How much traction did we have? He wasn’t sure. “Three years ago, I would have been concerned about the outcome of a vote in the General Assembly.” Before Campsen’s April 17 press conference wrapped, 33 members of the 46-member Senate had signed on to support the proviso. Later that day — by a 40-4 vote — it passed out of the Senate. Soon after, stamped by House lawmakers and Governor Henry McMaster, the proviso carried the full weight of state law and sent another strong message to Washington. Since 2018, six states have passed bills or resolutions against drilling. But Campsen’s proviso represents the first time a state has outlined a defensive strategy in its fiscal budget. The proviso effectively hinders federal efforts to explore and mine for oil and gas off South Carolina’s coast. MAKING OFFSHORE DRILLING COSTLIER

It prohibits state agencies and local governments from permitting or financing pipelines, refineries and related land-based infrastructure. If oil and gas companies begin to drill, they’ll be forced to build and maintain infrastructure in neighboring states, making the business of drilling tougher and costlier over time. Campsen — an avid fan of the Federalist Papers and constitutional law — says the proviso is legally sound, too. Under the principles of federalism, South Carolina has authority over its land and water up to three miles offshore. And while it can’t prohibit massive platforms and rigs in federal waters, say 21

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S.C. Senator Chip Campsen grew up on Isle of Palms and is fighting offshore drilling to protect the South Carolina coast. He doesn’t want the devastation caused by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico to happen here.

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The land-based infrastructure associated with offshore drilling is incompatible with the land uses we have developed and methodically implemented in South Carolina. We have made deliberate policy decisions. We have passed laws to preserve these places. We’ve dedicated funds to purchase public lands for hunting, parks and recreation. We have demonstrated a decades-long commitment to conservation.

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55 miles offshore, it can prevent the industrialization of its coastal plain. THE SCARS DRILLING LEAVES BEHIND

Campsen, whose district represents about half of South Carolina’s shoreline from Bulls Bay to the Port Royal Sound, is no stranger to the scars left behind by drilling. For years, he rounded Florida by water and entered the Gulf of Mexico to pick up boats for the family business. There, he spotted infrastructure he describes as dirty and grimy, and an unforgettable slick layer stretching across the ocean’s surface. When Campsen’s two sons returned from a recent hunting trip through the marshes of Louisiana looking for mallards, blue-winged teals and wigeons, they confirmed his observations. “There was not a moment out there duck hunting near Venice — way out there, as far as you can get in the Gulf — when they could not hear a diesel engine running. They ended up smelling like oil. There was always evidence of oil.” Duck hunting is a Campsen family tradition. Raised on Isle of Palms, with his younger brother in tow, he would hide in blinds or sleep under the stars where resorts, condos and multimillion-dollar homes now stand. He surfed, rode a motorcycle and camped in places like Price’s Inlet, recalling an adolescence reminiscent of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. “We’d live off the land; take beans and rice and water, and catch what we ate. I’d see maybe three boats all weekend long. Now, on any given weekend, you can walk across Price’s Inlet on boats,” he said. THE OUTDOORS, JUSTICE AND SERVICE

Like Campsen, his father was a lawyer, an outdoorsman and a statesman, serving in the state’s House of Representatives and in the same seat he’d later occupy, starting in 1996. Campsen credits his dad for shaping his sense of justice, worldview and inspiring his run for office. Around his father’s dinner table, small talk was not tolerated. Rather, conversation turned to what was happening in the world. They discussed what ought to be and why it ought to be that way. “It was a civics lesson every night,” Campsen remembers. When Campsen launched his career in Columbia, land conservation swiftly became his first priority. He authored and introduced the Conservation Incentives Act and later the law that would establish the state’s Conservation Bank, an independent agency that leverages state resources to protect land in South Carolina. As the state’s most important

land protection tool and funding source, the independent agency has conserved about 300,000 acres since 2004. A COLLABORATIVE, METHODICAL APPROACH

It’s this collaborative and methodical approach to conservation, which Campsen and the Coastal Conservation League have long advocated for, that now serves as the foundation for his most powerful argument against drilling. “The land-based infrastructure associated with offshore drilling is incompatible with the land uses we have developed and methodically implemented in South Carolina,” Campsen said. “We have made deliberate policy decisions. We have passed laws to preserve these places. We’ve dedicated funds to purchase public lands for hunting, parks and recreation. We have demonstrated a decades-long commitment to conservation.” “With that infrastructure, we would destroy South Carolina’s coast.” That argument is catching on here at home and in Washington. Senator Campsen recently hand-delivered a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Bernhardt briefly reviewed the letter, nodded and remarked on the novelty of the argument. It was one he hadn’t considered before, and wanted to learn more about. A fastidious writer and analytical thinker, Senator Campsen’s letters to Washington, his opinion pieces in outlets like The Post and Courier and his conversations with constituents on drilling have evolved over time. Today, he nods frequently to a quote by John Sawhill, who once led The Nature Conservancy. It reads: “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy.” He’s drawn to the quotation because it reminds him of his responsibility as a steward of our natural resources and our collective power to protect what we could easily choose to destroy. “I often ask myself, are my children and grandchildren going to have the opportunity to go to a magnificent place like Wimbee Creek or the Combahee River Basin, and it still look like it does today?” It also reminds him of his commitment to serve and accomplish things that transcend the personal. To leave South Carolina in a better place. To make a difference in the state Senate, and in the fight against offshore drilling, which continues. “Now, I think we ought to pass a permanent law. I’m going to try.” F A L L 2 0 1 9 | C O A S T A L C O N S E R VA T I O N L E A G U E |




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A Scientist Disrupts the System How Sarah Kell and a scientific study of microplastics in South Carolina’s waters became a tool for changing minds and policy. by CAITIE FORDE-SMITH

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arah Kell was a land-locked kid from Kansas who loved the ocean. Every summer, she visited her grandparents in southern Florida, drawn to science and the vast underwater unknown. She later studied marine biology at a university in the Panhandle and paddled the Everglades. After graduation, Kell worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, approving permits for oyster reefs, docks and marinas. Then a drilling rig 100 miles offshore exploded, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BRACING FOR IMPACT

Kell jumped in to help. For three years, she served as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s liaison to the Deepwater Horizon disaster team and guided first responders who surveyed beaches daily to predict where oil might wash up. Collaborating across multiple agencies and states to solve a complex environmental crisis and relying on science inspired Kell to attend graduate school. “After

that, I knew I wanted to go into toxicology, perhaps the science behind oil spills.” She arrived at the College of Charleston in 2016 and soon met Dr. John Weinstein, a biology professor at The Citadel, best known for his research on microplastics. Weinstein’s team had recently wrapped two bombshell studies, one of Winyah Bay near Georgetown and Charleston Harbor, which estimated that about seven tons of microplastics littered the harbor’s shore and floated in its waters. Over time, plastic waste from items like bags, cups, clothes, tires and Styrofoam break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. Microplastics are tiny, sometimes microscopic. Yet, they pose a significant threat to marine life, drinking water and public health. When Eastern oysters, brown shrimp and littleneck clams — species we revere in the Lowcountry — eat microplastics, their digestive tracts are paralyzed and they can pass this toxic trash up the food chain. “We know oysters and shrimp are eating them, and then you eat those things,” Kell said. “We’re drinking them. We’re breathing them in the air. They’re everywhere.” PROTECTING HOME RULE

In response, South Carolina’s local communities have begun to lead on reducing plastic pollution. To date, 18 cities, towns and counties have passed targeted and effective bans on single-use plastic products — items like bags and straws that are typically used once and then tossed. Collectively, the bans now protect more than half a million people and help keep our rivers, creeks, salt marshes and ocean clean. Despite local progress, legislation pushed by plastic industry lobbyists and big manufacturers is debated at the Statehouse. The bills are designed to obstruct local bans and are always stopped just short — in part thanks to the prowess and persistence of the Coastal Conservation League and its supporters. This year was no different. Senators Scott Talley and Wes Climer introduced Senate Bill 394 in January. The bill aims to unravel existing bans and block any future action on harmful plastic trash. It’s a violation of home rule, a principle, outlined in the state’s Constitution, that guarantees municipalities the right to address local problems with local solutions. TESTING THE WATERS

Around the time of the bill’s introduction, Kell heard from a TV reporter named Paul Rivera. Rivera, a re29

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Dover, Kohl & Partners

Sarah Kell, a graduate student at the College of Charleston, studies microplastics and found them in all of about 1000 water samples she has taken, including surface and tap water around Columbia.

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“Picking up one piece of plastic can save thousands of pieces of microplastics from going into the environment,” she said. “You as an individual, your daily use, your reduction, can make an impact.”

porter and weekend anchor with WIS News in Columbia, had an idea. He wanted to test a floating island of plastic trash near the Columbia Canal, a source of drinking water for 300,000 residents, to determine if plastic waste was reaching kitchen sinks and showers in the state’s capital. “I knew we would find microplastics,” Kell said. She was right. Leveraging her expertise and with her sampling gear in tow, Kell sampled water from the canal and then went a step further. She sampled the Congaree River and Lake Murray, another source of drinking water. She sampled six separate tap water sites, including Rivera’s station. And, in a final stop and without permission, Rivera and Kell tucked into a side door at the Statehouse, bypassed security, and hastily filled several big bottles with tap water. “We snuck out like bandits,” she laughed. SPREADING THE WORD

In a series that debuted in February, Rivera revealed the results of Kell’s research. She’d found microplastics in every single surface and tap water sample. The plastic fragments were different sizes and colors and likely came from cosmetic microbeads, clothes fibers, Styrofoam and aging tires. Kell’s was the first study of microplastics pollution in a South Carolina public water system, and all samples were sourced from the state’s second largest system. (The City of Columbia doesn’t test its water for microplastics, and the federal government doesn’t regulate plastic waste in drinking water as it does with other pollutants). In the weeks following the coverage, countless people reached out to Kell about her findings. City officials issued a public statement to address water quality concerns. Mark Huguley, the mayor of Arcadia Lakes, urged his neighbors to follow the town’s lead to become another inland community to pass a local ban. Later, a Winthrop poll disclosed a majority of South

Carolinians support home rule, which empowers local governments to regulate plastic pollution. News and buzz of the study reached the halls of the Statehouse, just as a small group of Senators on the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee considered Senate Bill 394. “I think it aired at a really pivotal point,” Kell said. The bad bill crawled out of committee meetings and advanced to the Senate floor, but not without staunch opposition from legislators like Senators Sandy Senn and Ronnie Saab and mayors, council members, business owners, health advocates and the conservation community. Senate Bill 394 missed a key legislative deadline, which meant it wouldn’t progress. In later budget discussions, a temporary, one-year ban on local plastics bans was proposed. But that effort was roundly defeated in a 27-15 vote. Some Senators who had previously indicated their support for a statewide ban on bans flipped their position. Altogether, Conservation League supporters sent 36,778 calls and emails to Columbia, representing an advocacy record for the organization and outpacing all other legislative campaigns in 2019 combined. “The people have spoken,” one state lawmaker wrote back to advocates. FINDING HER VOICE

Still, where the home rule debate stalled is where it will resume, and Senators will likely take up Senate Bill 394 quickly in 2020. For now, local bans stand and more local governments are exploring ways to protect waterways, wildlife, and residents from plastic pollution. Kell is poised to help them. “Historically, we publish research. We stay in our lane, but science is shifting. You need to spread the message. You need to be an advocate for your work.” It’s a role Kell is still getting used to. She will complete her thesis early next year and plans to remain in Charleston. She wants to keep publishing sound science that can then be used by citizens and advocacy groups like the Conservation League to fight for policies that protect communities and the environment. By her own estimate, Kell says she’s looked at more than 1,000 water samples and found microplastics in all of them. Yet, she is still inspired by individual actions and the power of even one person to create change and drive progress. “Picking up one piece of plastic can save thousands of pieces of microplastics from going into the environment,” she said. “You as an individual, your daily use, your reduction, can make an impact.” F A L L 2 0 1 9 | C O A S T A L C O N S E R VA T I O N L E A G U E |




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Rural Solar Farm Energizes Retirement, Land & Communities When Wannelle Witt Lefkowitz leased some of her farmland to a solar energy company, she learned about the true “power� of community. by DIANE KNICH

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annelle Witt Lefkowitz went to her mailbox one day in October 2014 and found a letter from Southern Current, a Charleston-based solar energy company. It was a “dear-sir-or madam” kind of letter, asking her if she was interested in leasing some of the farmland she owned in rural Swansea to the company for a solar farm. Her husband Marty didn’t think the letter looked legitimate. “Trash it,” he told her. But Lefkowitz, who lives in Lexington, felt compelled to check it out. And she’s glad she did. Today, rows of solar panels fill 160 acres of her 650-acre property generating 17.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power up to 2,500 homes. Southern Current developed the land and worked with Lefkowitz on the lease agreement, then sold the project to Cypress Creek Renewables, the national solar company that now runs it. Lefkowitz said the income she receives from leasing a portion of her land to Cypress Creek is helping fund her retirement. She also leases some of the land to a farmer who grows soybeans, cotton, and corn, but leasing land for a solar farm brings in “significantly more,” she said. The lease arrangement — which will run for at least 20 and up to 45 years — is about more than the additional income, she said. Her grandfather and his brother purchased the land more than 100 years ago, and she wants to preserve it as farmland and keep it in the family. She plans to eventually pass it to her children and grandchildren. The extra income will help her hold on to it so she can do that. When the lease is up on the solar farm, Cypress Creek will remove the panels and the land will revert to farmland. The solar farm will also benefit the community, which is important to her because she grew up in Swansea. Lefkowitz paid less than $1,000 per year in property taxes on the land when it was used for farming. Today, Cypress Creek pays $95,000 per year in property taxes. That money is benefitting her hometown, she said. “In the end, it was like winning the lottery.” ENERGY FREEDOM ACT

Back in 2014, Lefkowitz wasn’t sure she would hit the jackpot. It took three years for the permits and the interconnection agreements to go through so the project could move forward. “There was a time when I didn’t know if it would happen,” she said. “But I thought, wouldn’t it be great if it did?” The state Legislature passed the Energy Freedom Act in May and Governor Henry McMaster signed it 35

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Wannelle Witt Lefkowitz leases 160 acres of her 650acre farm in Swansea for a solar farm that produces enough energy to power up to 2,500 homes.

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“At the Statehouse, the debates on clean energy are often abstract, about issues like contract length, but Wannelle’s story is the story of solar in South Carolina. It’s a win-win.” into law. Under the new rules, the processes for getting a solar farm up and operating will move more quickly. The comprehensive bill opened the door to expanded solar energy in South Carolina and will help sustain all segments of the solar energy market including residential and commercial as well as large-scale solar operations. It protects residents who generate energy with rooftop panels, ensuring they are fairly compensated for the power they generate. It also ensures fair market access for developers of utility-scale solar projects, which are often the least expensive way to generate new electricity. Alan Hancock, Energy and Climate Advocacy Director at the Coastal Conservation League, said the Energy Freedom Act opened up South Carolina’s electricity markets for more competition, which benefits all of us with clean, affordable power. Stories like Lefkowitz’s are important to the larger solar story, Hancock said. “At the Statehouse, the debates on clean energy are often abstract, about issues like contract length, but Wannelle’s story is the story of solar in South Carolina. It’s a win-win.” Passing the Energy Freedom Act was a team effort, he said. The Conservation League worked with conservation partners like Southern Environmental Law Center, Conservation Voters of South Carolina, and Audubon South Carolina, as well as solar groups like 37

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Vote Solar, the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, Conservatives for Clean Energy, the S.C. Solar Business Alliance and the Solar Energy Industries Association to make the bill a reality. This coalition worked together to advance the Energy Freedom Act, with press conferences and a Rally for Energy Freedom at the Statehouse, and the people of South Carolina responded, with thousands of emails and calls going to legislators in Columbia to support the legislation. The Coastal Conservation League, from our Columbia office just across Assembly Street from the Statehouse, helped organize advocates and experts to bring the bill across the finish line. In the end, it passed unanimously. But the work is not done. The bill directed the Public Service Commission to decide key implementation details, and the Conservation League and Southern Environmental Law Center are intervening in those cases to ensure that the goals of the Energy Freedom Act to advance renewable energy in South Carolina are realized. Lefkowitz said she supports the new rules and anything that helps the expansion of solar energy. Friends and neighbors who have seen the solar farm work for her have asked about it, and she’s always willing to share her story. “It’s a win for everybody,” she said. “It was great for me. Why not share the story?”

Wannelle Witt Lefkowitz says leasing a portion of her farmland to a solar company helps her fund her retirement and keep her land, so she can pass it to her children and grandchildren. F A L L 2 0 1 9 | C O A S T A L C O N S E R VA T I O N L E A G U E |


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he mission of the Coastal Conservation League is to protect the threatened resources of the South Carolina coastal plain—its natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, clean water, and quality of life—by working with citizens and government on proactive, comprehensive solutions to environmental challenges.

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Coastal Conservation League Fall 2019  

Coastal Conservation League Fall 2019