Divers begin 'tire reef' cleanup off south Florida

Florida has budgeted $1.6 million to clean up the Osborne Tire Reef

Divers in helmets have begun walking the ocean floor off south Florida to clear an environmental catastrophe that's rested among the coral reefs for more than 40 years.

An estimated 700,000 tires were dropped into the ocean off Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in the early 1970s in a failed attempt to create an artificial reef. At the time, before anyone had figured out how to recycle tires or burn them for electricity, tire dumps were appearing all over the United States.

The Osborne Tire Reef was intended to be an environmentally friendly way to dispose of steel-belted radials. The bundles of tires would attract fish — which are drawn to vertical structures — and provide a foundation for the growth of corals. On a single day in 1972, with the Goodyear blimp overhead and the U.S. minesweeper vessel Thrush in attendance, more than 100 boatloads of tires were dumped into the water.

But not much coral grew on them, and the bundles broke apart, allowing tires to drift onto the natural reefs, where they killed coral. What remains today is an eerie, virtually lifeless vista of tires stretching across 35 acres.

"There are just tires for as far as you can see," said Pat Quinn, a biologist for Broward County who is serving as local project manager. "People who see it for the first time come to the surface and say, 'Oh, my God.'"

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection budgeted $1.6 million for the work and hired Industrial Divers Corp. of Fort Lauderdale to start cleaning up the mess. The two-year job will remove about 90,000 tires from the highest-priority area, about three-fourths of a mile off shore, where loose tires are backing up against one of the natural reefs.

Once hauled back to land, the tires will travel by truck to an energy plant near Tampa, to be burned to generate electricity.

The tires will come from a strip of ocean floor about 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, next to the edge of the middle reef.

"They're piled on top of each other up to five deep," Quinn said.

Unlike scuba divers, these commercial divers don't use tanks or fins. They wear helmets, tethered to the barge by lines for air and communications. Working at a depth of 70 feet, they bundle the tires and hook them onto a crane, which hoists them onto the barge.

The 90,000 tires being removed is in addition to 72,000 taken out by military divers from 2007 to 2009 as part of training operations. That will leave more than half a million tires still on the ocean floor.

Many will be left in place. Half-buried in the sand, they would be extremely difficult to remove, may be crusted with marine life and would stir up silt as they came up. As for the remaining loose ones, Quinn said, "we're going to evaluate our options."

dfleshler@tribpub.com

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