Murrells Inlet fireworks shows spark controversy

The fireworks shows that get oohs and aahs from onlookers every Monday night along the MarshWalk are prompting a very different response from some residents and groups that say the shows are harming the very thing that makes the inlet special: the environment.

Groups such as Murrells Inlet 2020 have opposed the fireworks and some residents have complained about litter, potential environmental damage and noise since the 10-week series started June 16. This is the second summer the Marshwalk Association has organized the weekly eight-minute fireworks shows, which start at 9 p.m. every Monday and lures hundreds of onlookers, many of which rave about the free show.

“To do it just to sell more food and drinks on Monday nights – some don’t think that’s a wise thing to do,” said Gary Weinreich, who lives less than a mile from the MarshWalk and has contacted state and local leaders with his concerns. “I just honestly don’t understand why seven restaurants [that make a living off the inlet] would do anything that has the potential to damage it.”

Free fireworks shows have been popular along the Grand Strand for years and have proven to lure crowds to those areas. Entertainment centers such as Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach, Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach and the oceanfront in Myrtle Beach have had weekly shows for years.

The MarshWalk in Murrells Inlet joined in last summer aiming to “create some energy in the inlet,” said Mike Campbell, managing partner of Dead Dog Saloon and a member of the association that organizes the Monday night show. The shows have contributed to Monday night crowds of 1,500 people between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., he said.

“It’s just a nice thing for the visitors and locals,” he said.

Campbell said the restaurants wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the inlet environment. Zambelli, the company that puts on the show, cleans up, and the association also has a boat that goes out at dawn Tuesday mornings to pick up any and all debris – whether it’s left from the fireworks or other sources, Campbell said.

“It is not the environmental impact that residents think it is,” he said. “As an association of restaurants down here we are very attune to that.”

Environmental impacts

Water quality impacts, if any, would depend on the composition and quantity of the residue, its location, whether it is flushing or concentrating in sensitive areas and the ability of the aquatic environment to lessen impacts, said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has received at least one complaint about the inlet fireworks this year.

“Good housekeeping, such as debris removal from the water or marsh, would minimize aesthetic and water quality concerns,” Beasley said.

Susan Libes, director of the Waccamaw Watershed Academy and professor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University, said there’s not much peer reviewed information about the effect of fireworks on aquatic ecosystems. There are potential concerns, including those with pollutants, but it’s hard to assess the threat because it’s not known the degree to which these chemicals are fully combusted, or the amount, she said.

“We are sending a confusing message to the public that it is OK sometimes to put debris/litter/pollutants into the inlet while at the same time, you have an educational campaign to address littering and the Spring Tide effort to clean up litter,” she said in an email. “Fireworks are being shot off over water by many individuals at many sites around the inlet. Likewise many individuals and groups at many sites along the Grand Strand are also shooting off fireworks. Thus any educational or regulatory remedy needs to be applied consistently to these users.”

Weinreich said he collected a mass of litter after the first fireworks show on the MarshWalk June 16, and doesn’t know how this couldn’t have negative effects on the inlet, including the oyster beds. The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office has received one litter complaint about the fireworks and is looking into it, spokeswoman Carrie Cuthbertson said.

“The estuary is much more sensitive” than other areas along the Grand Strand where fireworks are regularly launched, Weinreich said. “It’s the nursery for just about everything.”

The board of directors of Murrells Inlet 2020, a community group that aims to improve and protect the inlet, said during its June meeting that the fireworks don’t support the group’s mission.

“Murrells Inlet is beautiful. Many of us get to call this home and we enjoy sharing our community with visitors from all over,” said Sean Bond, the board’s chairman. “The views are breathtaking, trees majestic, local caught and prepared food is delicious, shopping is great, the goats are fuzzy, and the fishing and boating excursions are adventurous for all ages. Murrells Inlet in its raw and natural form has its own spectacular sights.”

Fireworks fans

Some fireworks fans say the weekly show adds to what the inlet already offers.

Murrells Inlet resident Francesca Smit, who was with her family Monday night waiting for the fireworks and a table at Dead Dog Saloon, said she caught a number of the MarshWalk’s fireworks last year and was glad they are back this year.

“I enjoyed it a lot last year. It was great,” Smit said as the buzzer for her table at Dead Dog lit up. “I look forward to it. I just think it is a fun thing to do.”

Roy and Joy Newman, visiting from Augusta, Ga., were lounging in adirondack chairs on the deck at Bubba’s Love Shak on Monday, sipping beers and waiting for the fireworks to start. The couple, who regularly go to the inlet while in town, were checking out some of the restaurant menus earlier Monday when they saw a flier about the fireworks that night.

“OK, great. This is definitely our hangout,” Joy Newman said.

Some restaurants say the crowds on Monday nights when there are fireworks are by far one of the biggest of the week.

“Yeah, it’s no comparison,” said Jacob Hyde, a bartender at Wicked Tuna who was working the restaurant’s outdoor Tiki Bar on Monday. “It draws so many people here. It helps everyone’s business.”

Some tourists said they were coming to the inlet anyway on Monday night – friends had recommended the restaurants there – and were pleasantly surprised by the fireworks show.

“This is incredible,” said Jackie McNeill from Greensboro, N.C., holding his 14-month-old grandson Brayton Bowman. “We had no idea they would do this.”

Greg and Kay Segers of Liberty went to the MarshWalk Monday to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary with a dinner at Drunken Jack’s, unaware that fireworks would be coming later.

“It was an added bonus,” Greg Segers said.

Both said it was one of the best fireworks shows they had seen; Kay Segers shot some video of it from her cell phone.

“Most of the shows are just ‘pow, boom, pow boom.’ This one was constant,” Greg Segers said.

Any resolution?

Weinreich said an occasional fireworks show, such as one on July Fourth, is OK but one every week for 10 weeks is too much.

“I would hope the next step would be that common sense would prevail,” Weinreich said.

Georgetown County would not allow the fireworks to be set off from the MarshWalk like they were last year, but that’s all the county can do, councilman Jerry Oakley said, adding that he understands points made by the businesses as well as those concerned about the environment. The fireworks now are set off from a boat in the inlet.

“You have two valid interests,” Oakley said. “I hope there can be some resolution. But what that is, I don’t know.”