Bright Idea of Tire Reef Now Simply a Blight

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Now the idea seems daft. But in the spring of 1972, the dumping of a million or so tires offshore here looked like ecological enlightenment.

From the scrap tires, artificial reefs would grow and fish would throng, or so it was thought. A flotilla of more than 100 private boats with volunteers turned out to help. A Goodyear blimp christened the site by dropping a gold-painted tire.

"A potential grouper haven," a county report opined. Artificial reefs made from tires "appear to be the next best thing to recycling."

What happened instead is a vast underwater dump -- a spectacular disaster spawned from good intentions. Today there are no reefs, no fishy throngs, just a lifeless underwater gloom of haphazardly dropped tires stretching across 35 acres of ocean bottom.

It's not just a matter of botched scenery. Because they can roll around, the tires are pounding against natural reefs nearby.

"It's depressing as hell," said Ken Banks, a reef specialist for Broward County, who recently explored the site. "We dove in and swam for what seemed like an hour and never came to the end of it. It just went on and on."

Robin Sherman, a professor at Nova Southeastern University, led a project a few years ago to retrieve some of the tires most directly damaging Fort Lauderdale's natural reefs.

Two months later, she dived in the area again.

"It was completely recovered with tires -- it was even hard to find where we had worked," she said. "That's when I realized we have to clean up the whole thing."

So, after years in which the site was studied and then neglected, officials here are planning to clean up the environmental experiment gone awry.

Coastal America, a partnership of federal agencies, state and local governments and private groups, is trying to organize a cleanup using military salvage teams that would use the tire retrieval as a training exercise. Once the divers pulled the tires up, they would be disposed of by the state at a cost of about $3 million to $5 million.

The scale of the project -- some say there are as many as 2 million tires below -- and the number of different specialties required had prevented previous bureaucratic efforts from going forward.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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