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Murrells Inlet: Group finds data lacking on fireworks pollution

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

There is little data about the effect of fireworks on the salt marsh, but to get it from Murrells Inlet, where weekly shows began this summer, will require at least three years of monitoring. That means another three more summers of Monday Night Lights launched from the Marsh Walk as a promotion for six area restaurants.

The Murrells Inlet 2020 revitalization group started looking at the environmental impact of fireworks after the Marsh Walk restaurants began the series last month. The group is also at work on a watershed management plan with the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments to help maintain the water quality in the estuary for shellfish harvesting.

Inorganic compounds known as perchlorates are what give fireworks their pizzazz by creating higher temperatures. They are also shown to cause defects in fish when present in large amounts, according to studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The colors of fireworks also come from metals, some of which are toxic.

But it’s unknown how much, if any, of those potential pollutants end up in Murrells Inlet after the weekly shows. “The dose makes the poison,” said Susan Libes, a professor of marine chemistry at Coastal Carolina University, works with volunteer water quality monitors in Murrells Inlet. “It’s the amount of metals that make the difference.”

She told the Murrells Inlet 2020 board this week that she discussed the situation in Murrells Inlet with a colleague. Would the tidal cycles in the inlet flush out any pollutants? “For sure,” he told her.

That’s only speculation, but Libes said it highlights the dilemma.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m more used to monitoring something and coming up with a qualitative analysis.”

And she said the results would differ depending on whether the fireworks were shot off at high tide or low tide.

If Murrells Inlet 2020 wanted to monitor the impact of fireworks, it would take at least three years of data to be able to begin drawing conclusions, she said.

The potential harm to the estuary would come from pollutants bonding with the sediment and finding their way into the food chain, Libes said.

Most of the studies on fireworks have been done on freshwater lakes. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of information out there” for saltwater estuaries, she said.

Murrells Inlet water quality has been studied since the 1990s, but that work has focused on fecal coliform bacteria, an indicator of pathogens that could make shellfish hazardous for human consumption. Some of that information could provide background data for studying the effects of fireworks, Libes said.

“This isn’t like pristine, at least with regard to the metals,” she said.

But if the community wants to focus on pollution, Libes encouraged Murrells Inlet 2020 to look at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PHAs, a byproduct of burning fuels that can cause cancer. They can be carried into the inlet from stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots.

“I’m using this as an opportunity to get back to a subject I’ve had my eye on for a long time,” she said. “That is runoff from roads.”

What about boats? asked Maxine Dawes, who chairs the group’s board.

They are a potential source of PHAs, Libes said.

David Owens, a board member, said the change from two- to four-stroke outboards has cut the amount of oil going into the water, since the four-strokes don’t require a gas-oil mixture.

Owen’s, who started Capt. Dave’s Dockside restaurant, said it makes sense for Murrells Inlet 2020 to focus on the pollutants that have the most impact.

“In my heart, I know absolutely it’s harmful,” said board member Sandra Bundy, adding that “I like to look at fireworks as much as the next person.”

But she acknowledged the lack of information about their impacts. She suggested monitoring if the fireworks shows will continue.

Jim Wilkie, a water quality monitor and a member of the group’s advisory board, was among those who raised questions about the impact of fireworks. “Best management practices are what we’re headed toward,” he said.

The fireworks lobby in the state is too powerful to allow any regulations to be adopted, Wilkie said.

The Zambelli company that produces the weekly shows and the Fourth of July show told Murrells Inlet 2020 after the group received complaints about the first show that it would do a better job of cleaning up the fireworks debris.

The company also said using different types of fireworks to lessen any environmental impact would make the shows less vivid and more expensive. The weekly shows cost $3,000 each.

Charlie Campbell, a board member and owner of the Dead Dog Saloon, said the shows are helping draw people to the Marsh Walk on a traditionally slow night. “People like it, but we’ll be busy one way or another,” he said.

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