published in the NY Times via the AP February 18, 2007
Anastasia Walsh/Sun Sentinel, via Associated Press
The tires were unloaded there in 1972 to create an artificial reef that could attract a rich variety of marine life, and to free up space in clogged landfills. But decades later, the idea has proved a huge ecological blunder.
Little sea life has formed on the tires. Some tires that were bundled together with nylon and steel have broken loose and are scouring the ocean floor across a swath the size of 31 football fields. Tires are washing up on beaches. Thousands have wedged up against a nearby natural reef, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life.
“The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area; it just didn’t work that way,” said Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University who was instrumental in organizing the project. “I look back now and see it was a bad idea.”
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 Broward County biologists, state scientists and Army and Navy salvage divers.
Gov. Charlie Crist’s budget includes $2 million to help remove the tires. The military divers would work at no cost to the state by making it part of their training.
A monthlong pilot project is set for June. The full-scale salvage operation is expected to run through 2010 at a cost to the state of about $3.4 million.
Mr. McAllister helped put together the ill-fated reef project with the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers. He helped raise several thousand dollars (the county also chipped in), organized hundreds of volunteers with boats and barges, and got tires from Goodyear.
Goodyear also donated equipment to bind and compress the tires, and the Goodyear blimp dropped a gold-painted tire into the ocean in a ceremonial start to the project.
It was a disappointment, like other tire reefs created around the world in recent decades.
“We’ve literally dumped millions of tires in our oceans,” said Jack Sobel, an 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, we now realize that we made a mistake.”
No one can say with certainty why the idea does 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 by the tides and powerful storms before marine life has a chance to attach. Some scientists also believe the rubber leaches toxins.
Virginia tried it several decades ago. But Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 ripped the tires loose, and they washed up in North Carolina.
Most states have stopped using tires to create reefs, but they continue to wash up worldwide. In 2005, volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy’s annual international coastal cleanup removed more than 11,000 tires.
Tires retrieved from the waters off Fort Lauderdale will be ground up for use in road projects and burned for fuel, among other uses.
“It’s going to be a huge job bringing them all up,” said Michael Sole, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s vigorous work. You have to dig the tires out of the sand.”