FORT LAUDERDALE — A mile offshore from this city’s high-rise condos and spring-break bars lie as many as 2 million old tires, strewn across the ocean floor — a white-walled, steel-belted monument to good intentions gone awry.
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 of the 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.”
In fact, 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 proposed budget includes $2 million to help gather up and remove the tires. The military divers would do their share of the work at no cost to the state by making it part of their training.
A month-long 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.
McAllister helped put together the ill-fated reef project with the approval of the U.S. 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 even dropped a gold-painted tire into the ocean in a ceremonial start to the project.
The tire company issued a press release at the time that proclaimed the reef would “provide a haven for fish and other aquatic species,” and noted the “excellent properties of scrap tires as reef material.”
It was a disappointment, just like other tire reefs created off coastal states and 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 doesn’t 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.
New Jersey scientists thought they had a solution to the weight problem. In 1986, the state began a small reef project with about 1,000 tires split in half, bound together and weighted with concrete. It didn’t work. Pieces of rubber broke loose and floated free.
“We had to go up and down the coast of New Jersey and collect 50 to 100 of those pieces that were all along the beaches,” said Hugh Carberry of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The state then tried stacking tires 10-high and filling the cylindrical center with concrete. Each stack weighed about a ton. While the tires stayed in place, scientists soon learned they did not have enough surface area for marine life to attach, so they switched to using concrete balls.
Indonesia and Malaysia mounted enormous tire reef programs back in the 1980s and are just now seeing the consequences in littered beaches and reef damage, Sobel said.
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.
The 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.”