Elizabeth Applegate Dieck finds path to environmental law
For many, growing up on South Carolina’s coast naturally fuels an enduring passion for the environment. No doubt, that was the case for Elizabeth Applegate Dieck, who spent as much of her youth as possible outdoors and on the water, a practice she and her husband continue to this day with their three children.
“It really is a blessing when you grow up in a place like Charleston,” states Mrs. Dieck, who recently joined the law firm Moore and Van Allen to practice environmental law. “Every single day, you see beautiful, pristine environments to take full advantage of with your family and friends. The amazing coastal scenarios are truly endless. Not every city is like this.”
But Mrs. Dieck admits she took the long road of experience from her undergraduate days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and post-graduate studies at University of South Carolina School of Law to her perfect-fit career as an environmental lawyer. But she wouldn’t trade a single moment of the long and often difficult journey for anything, especially now that she’s come full circle.
Out of law school, Mrs. Dieck spent nearly a decade as an associate at Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd. “I had a general litigation practice there,” says Mrs. Dieck. “I really enjoyed it. I tried a lot of cases and met a lot of great folks.”
As Mrs. Dieck realigned her life to include her husband and young children while balancing an active career, an opportunity presented itself for her to work as chief counsel for the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM), a division of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environment Control (DHEC). She jumped at the chance.
“I was responsible for advising OCRM about coastal permitting, compliance and enforcement in the eight coastal counties in South Carolina,” she explains. “It was a great experience, but the bureaucracy was really frustrating for me. I kept thinking that if we could improve the process, OCRM would be far more efficient in the long run, even if it initially it took more work on the front end. But I was the lawyer and not in management.”
Growing frustration with the bureaucracy, coupled with the birth of her third child, Mrs. Dieck decided to leave her post to focus for a while on her growing family. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Dieck received a call from Catherine Templeton, who was serving as the director of DHEC at the time. “I’d run into her socially a few months prior to that call and I expressed my frustrations about working at OCRM and some of my ideas on how to improve the process,” she continues. “Catherine offered me an opportunity to serve as the director of environmental affairs for DHEC. I thought, ‘what a great opportunity. This is fantastic.’ I reported directly to Catherine.”
It didn’t take Mrs. Dieck long to realize that serving as chief counsel for OMCR’s eight counties was one thing, but leading the environmental side of DHEC was something else entirely. “The scope of what I was charged to do was vast,” states Mrs. Dieck. “I quickly realized that DHEC touches every single aspect of your life. It’s the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the trash we create, it’s the food we eat in restaurants, it’s the hazardous waste we create. I knew I had a lot to learn.”
Under Mrs. Dieck’s leadership, positive energy began building inside the agency as they methodically reviewed and evaluated all the different programs, permits that were issued and compliance initiatives that were underway; and work to streamline the process without compromising the regulatory oversight. “We worked to change the culture to one of serving the people of South Carolina as opposed to being an impediment or an obstruction. We cut permitting timeframes by 40 percent just by reviewing and streamlining our process.”
Four years later, on the heels of Catherine Templeton’s exit from DHEC, Mrs. Dieck left her position in November 2015. “It was an amazing experience, but traveling back and forth almost daily to Columbia had taken its toll,” she says. “It was time to step back and re-connect with my family. It was time for me to be back full time in Charleston again.”
As Mrs. Dieck began looking at options to re-boot her career in 2017, the managing partner at Moore and Van Allen reached out to her. After careful consideration, she established an environmental law practice with the firm to help clients navigate the complex web of environmental regulations and obtain permits. She also provides compliance counseling and the resolution or avoidance of environmental enforcement issues. It’s the position for which her vast experiences in both life and law practice have prepared.
No day practicing environmental law is exactly like the next. One day she’s counseling a client about serious concerns regarding the storm water system in his subdivision and what can be done. The next day she’s negotiating with DHEC on a voluntary cleanup contract for a developer on a problematic piece of property.
“Protecting the environment is something I’m passionate about,” insists Mrs. Dieck. “It’s not about being anti-development or anti-growth. There are solutions that address many of our environmental concerns. It’s just that you have to be very direct and cognizant of what those issues are. These considerations have to be evaluated because they’re not going to go away.”
Mrs. Dieck loves being a member of the close-knit environmental bar in South Carolina. She also loves working in the same firm as her father, Sam Applegate. “Initially, my dad didn’t know I was in negotiations with Moore and Van Allen,” says Mrs. Dieck. “I remember taking my dad to lunch and telling him I’d been in discussions with the firm and that I thought I wanted to come practice with him. He’s an incredible man and an incredible lawyer. It’s an amazing honor to be here at this firm with him.
“This is all we’ve got,” she concludes, pointing to the Lowcountry environment. “We’ve got to make sure the decisions we make about our environment are prudent decisions, based in law and
reflect a positive overall effort to not only comply with the regulations that are on the books, but to do what’s best for the greater good.”