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Myrtle Beach area groups take a stand against offshore drilling

Groups across the Grand Strand drew a line in the sand against offshore drilling Saturday, joining in a nationwide protest of more than 800 such gatherings.

In Myrtle Beach, more than 50 people joined hands on the oceanfront next to Plyler Park in connection with Hands Across the Sand, an international movement to stop offshore drilling. Some tourists seeing the group gather ran to join in. Among them was six-year-old Elijah with his swimsuit-clad family in tow. He says he's against "dirty water," referring to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and his mother agrees.

"I'm concerned about it because if the oil comes up on shore, we won't be able to have a vacation," said Tisha Wicker of Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Hands Across the Sand website directed participants to join hands in silence near a body of water for fifteen minutes, but the Myrtle Beach group deviated from the formula, frequently breaking out in chanting or clapping. The lineup started at noon, and by 12:10 p.m. had already begun to disperse.

Grace Gifford with the group S.C. Green Churches came to the event with a stuffed lobster and a poster bearing a crossed out oil derrick. Everyone needs to move forward from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and make sure the environment is protected for the future by using clean energy, she said.

"This is God's earth, and we're put here to be stewards of that earth," Gifford said. "Right now we're not being very good stewards."

The Myrtle Beach event was one of six on the Grand Strand, with protests also in Murrells Inlet, Surfside Beach, Pawleys Island and North Myrtle Beach.

The North Myrtle Beach gathering had a similar turnout of 50 to 60 people, while only about 15 people came to the event in Murrells Inlet, organizers said.

"We accomplished what we set out to do," said Erik Safewright, organizer in Murrells Inlet. "Really, it was a symbolic action all along. We're looking for action from our representatives as the end result and that will be some time to come. We have a lot of work to do after the event."

The gathering did get a small boost from a few tourists who joined in when they saw the gathering on the Marshwalk, he said.

Support for Hands Across the Sand, which held its first event in February, has boomed since the Deepwater Horizon spill that began in April and continues to spew hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil each day into the gulf. About 10,000 attended such events on Florida beaches in February.

Attendance for all of today's events should trump that figure as the group promoted the idea nationally and internationally. About 100 international events are planned from New Zealand to India to Brazil. Some of the national organizations endorsing Hands Across the Sand are the Sierra Club, Audubon, Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and

"We were planning an event for the summer and then with the occurrence of the massive oil spill we decided to hold a national event. And it's just grown and grown and grown," said Mary Max Neely, the Myrtle Beach event's organizer who got involved in February.

The fourteen Hands Across the Sand events in South Carolina remain a small fraction of the more than 150 in Florida. That may be because the oil spill is more of a direct threat to Florida beaches, said Mirela Monte, who organized North Myrtle Beach's gathering.

"It's tangible there. They can see the oil on the beach, so they're getting worried," Monte said. "I feel like for a lot of people it will take that to get people involved."

Although the focus remained on the environment, attendee Jeff Covite is also worried about the economic impact of a spill should South Carolina drill off its shores. The economy has already been hit hard, and the risk of an oil spill ruining the beach is too much, the Socastee resident said.

"One more punch in the gut and you couldn't even give your condo away," Covite said.