Sun Sentinel: Fixing a catastrophe: Divers removing 90,000 tires from ocean May 19, 2015

Divers in helmets have begun walking the ocean floor off Fort Lauderdale 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 minesweeper USS Thrush in attendance, more than 100 boats full 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 and kill 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.'”

A diver from Industrial Divers Corp. suits up to descend to the ocean floor to remove tires dumped off Fort Lauderdale in the early 1970s. (Industrial Divers Corp., Courtesy)
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, located about three-fourths of a mile offshore, where loose tires are backing up against one of the natural reefs.

The company has spent three days on the cleanup so far, working only in calm weather to allow the safe use of the crane on the company’s 50-foot barge, said Rocco Galletta, the company’s vice president. So far, they have hauled up 640 tires.

The barge drops the tires off at Port Everglades, where they travel by truck to Wheelabrator Ridge Energy Inc. 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.

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