CARTERET COUNTY — At noon Saturday, environmentalists at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach and at Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle joined hands in a gesture of opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration and support for protecting the coastal environment.
The event was one of 150 being held around the world Saturday as a part of Hands Across the Sand, a global grassroots environmental movement. On a select day, environmentalists across the globe gather on local beaches and join hands as a gesture of protection of the environment from the negative effects of fossil fuel exploration.
In Atlantic Beach, at the fort’s public swimming beach, 66 people came together to join hands and four more were present in support of the event.
Meanwhile, at the beach near Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle, one organizer of the counted 190 people, another counted 223. It was about double what organizers said they optimistically hoped for and about quadruple the size of last year’s event.
This year’s gathering was buoyed by good weather, and a number of those protesting the federal government’s plans to allow oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean were from out of the county, even out of state.
“I can’t imagine walking on this beach and having to dodge tar balls that floated in from some leaking tanker going by offshore,” Doug Rollins of Pennsylvania said. “It would happen if this is allowed, mark my words. I’ve spent some time along the Gulf, and you see it almost every day, and I don’t want to see North Carolina’s coast covered with asphalt and concrete and oil facilities.”
People like Mr. Rollins and Laura Knox of Virginia were just the kind of people the Bogue Banks Chapter of the Surf Rider Foundation, the Croatan Chapter of the Sierra Club, the N.C. Coastal Federation and others on hand Saturday hoped to get involved.
On the other end of Bogue Banks, the local branch of the Sierra Club, the Unitarian Coastal Fellowship and the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper office organized the event at Fort Macon.
Sierra Club member Pat Harns was among those at the fort Saturday, handing out leaflets with information on the dangers of offshore oil and gas drilling, as well as seismic surveying, a form of fossil fuel surveying that uses compressed air guns to search for oil and gas deposits.
“I’ve been talking with people and nobody’s told me no,” Ms. Harns said of her message. “I think it (Hands Across the Sand) is getting more popular every year.”
Back in Emerald Isle, Sierra Club representative Joel Dunn said the pier is “an ideal place to have this.” Pier owner Mike Stanley waived the $10 daily weekend parking fee for participants.
“We want to get more than just the ‘usual suspects,’ people who live here and are in our groups, involved,” Mr. Dunn said. “We need everyone who cares about the ocean to get involved.”
He said the U.S. is at a point where clean energy, solar and wind can provide good sources of energy.
“There’s a modest amount of oil in the Atlantic, and we feel strongly that the dangers of seismic blasting (to test for oil) and drilling far outweigh the benefits,” he said.
Mr. Dunn and others, who set up tables on the beach full of information and petitions, urged those who participated to write their state and federal representatives to urge them to oppose oil exploration and drilling in the Atlantic.
Ms. Knox said she planned to do just that.
“I’ve got young children, and I want them to be able to enjoy our ocean and the beaches, and I want their children to be able to enjoy them, too,” she said. “I’ve been following all of this for years, and I’m glad I was able to participate in helping to send a message to Washington.”
This year’s Hands Across the Sand gatherings occur while the N.C. Division of Coastal Management is accepting public comments on a proposal from surveying company WesternGeco to conduct seismic surveying in the federal waters off the Atlantic coast, including off North Carolina.
At the Fort Macon gathering, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper representative Bryson Alexander said the surveys are dangerous to marine wildlife due to the disruption caused by the compressed air blasts.
“We oppose the seismic blasting and offshore drilling,” Mr. Alexander said. “If drilling occurs, there will be a spill eventually. The amount of environmental damage from drilling and from just the testing is unconscionable.”
Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton was among those who came out to the gathering at Fort Macon.
“Let’s protect this,” Mayor Newton said of the shoreline he stood at. “We need to fight to protect our environment. The mayors I’ve talked to say this isn’t a partisan issue. This (proposed seismic surveying) isn’t good for Carteret County or eastern North Carolina.”
In Emerald Isle, Sabrina Hylton of Emerald Isle Realty participated Saturday as an organizer and speaker, giving a corporate link to the Emerald Isle event for the first time in its four years.
She said Julia Wax, owner of the firm, knew she’d participated last year and asked her to up her involvement this year on the company’s behalf.
“We want to save our beaches,” she said. “Emerald Isle is a family tradition, and we want those families to keep coming back.”
Hands Across the Sand first sponsored an event in Florida in 2010, according to Mr. Dunn, after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig spill decimated much of the Gulf Coast.
Then, in 2015, the issue hit home in North Carolina, when then-President Barack Obama proposed to open the Atlantic to oil and gas exploration and drilling.
In 2016, after protests by local and state politicians and coastal residents, the former president reversed course and took the Atlantic off the table, but when Donald Trump took office in 2017, he began pushing to reverse that decision.
Currently, the plan is on hold, according to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but no one at Emerald Isle Saturday appeared to believe that “hold” will last.
“We need massive numbers (of people),” said one of the organizers, Val Johnson of Cedar Point, a member of the N.C. Coastal Federation and the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle program. “We’ve done this for four years here now, and we’re seeing new blood, new people, getting involved. I think people now realize (the threat) is real in North Carolina.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.