A 1970s plan for a tire reef off Florida turns into an ecological disaster
FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida: Less than a mile offshore from this city's high-rise condos and beachfront bars, where glitz and glamour mix with the annual spring revelry of vacationing college students, lies an underwater dump — up to two million old tires strewn across the ocean floor.
A well-intentioned attempt in 1972 to create what was touted as the world's largest artificial reef made of tires has become an ecological disaster.
The idea was simple: Create new marine habitat and alternative dive sites to relieve pressure on natural reefs, while disposing of tires that were clogging landfills.
Decades later, it is clear the plan failed miserably.
Little sea life has formed on the tires. Some of the bundles bound together with nylon and steel have broken loose and are scouring the ocean floor across a nearly two-mile, or three-kilometer, swath. Tires are washing up on beaches.
Thousands of them have wedged up against the nearby natural reef about 70 feet, or 20 meters, below the sea surface, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life. Similar problems have been reported at tire reefs worldwide.
"They're a constantly killing coral- destruction machine," said William Nuckols, coordinator for Coastal America, a federal group involved in organizing a cleanup effort that includes county biologists, state scientists and U.S. Army and Navy salvage divers.
Governor Charlie Crist's proposed budget includes $2 million (€1.5 million) to help to dispose of the tires. Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, will manage the work onsite, and military divers will use the effort as part of their annual training missions at no cost to Florida.
A monthlong pilot project is scheduled in June. The full-scale salvage operation is expected to run through 2010 at a cost to the state of about $3.4 million.
"The size of the salvage job has just been way too massive and expensive for county and state government to handle alone," Nuckols said.
Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University, was instrumental in organizing the 1970s tire-reef project, with the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
McAllister helped found Broward Artificial Reef Inc., which got tires from Goodyear and organized hundreds of volunteers with boats and barges. A Goodyear blimp even dropped a gold- painted tire into the ocean at the site to commemorate the start.
It is unclear how much it cost to build the reef, but McAllister said his group raised several thousand dollars. The county also chipped in, and Goodyear donated equipment to bind and compress the tires.
A 1972 Goodyear news release proclaimed that the reef would "provide a haven for fish and other aquatic species," and noted the "excellent properties of scrap tires as reef material."
"The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area," McAllister said. "It just didn't work that way. I look back now and see it was a bad idea."
In decades past, tire reefs were created off the U.S. coast and elsewhere, from Australia to Africa.
"We've literally dumped millions of tires in our oceans," said Jack Sobel, a senior Ocean Conservancy scientist. "I believe that people who were behind the artificial tire-reef promotions actually were well intentioned and thought they were doing the right thing."
"In hindsight," he added, "we now realize that we made a mistake."
No one can say exactly why the tire reefs do not work, but one problem is that, unlike large ships that have been sunk for reefs, tires are too light. They can be swept away with tides and currents from powerful storms, and marine life does not have a chance to attach.
Virginia tried it several decades ago, but in 1998 Hurricane Bonnie ripped the tires loose, sending them on a slow march south. They eventually littered beaches in North Carolina.
Indonesia and Malaysia mounted enormous tire-reef programs in the 1980s and are now seeing the ramifications, from littered beaches to reef destruction, Sobel said.
Most U.S. states have since stopped using tires to create reefs, but tires continue to wash up worldwide. In 2005, volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy's annual international coastal cleanup removed more than 11,000 tires from beaches.
The tires retrieved from the waters off Fort Lauderdale will be used in road projects and burned for fuel as part of Florida's tire-disposal program, said Michael Sole, chief of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
"It's going to be a huge job bringing them all up," Sole said. "It's vigorous work. You have to dig the tires out of the sand."