A well-intentioned attempt in 1972 to create what was touted as the world's largest artificial reef made of tires has become an ecological disaster.
The idea was simple: Create new marine habitat and alternate dive sites to relieve pressure on natural reefs, while disposing of tires that were clogging landfills.
Decades later it's clear the plan failed miserably.
Little sea life has formed on the tires. Some of the bundles bound together with nylon and steel have broken loose and are scouring the ocean floor across a swath the size of 31 soccer fields. Tires are washing up on beaches.
Thousands have wedged up against the nearby natural reef some 70 feet below the sea surface, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life. 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 to dispose of the tires. Broward County will manage the work onsite, and military divers will use the effort as part of their annual training missions at no cost to Florida.
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.
"The size of the salvage job has just been way too massive and expensive for county and state government to handle alone," Nuckols said.
Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University, was instrumental in organizing the 1970s tire reef project with the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
McAllister helped found Broward Artificial Reef Inc., which got tires from Goodyear and organized hundreds of volunteers with boats and barges. A Goodyear blimp even dropped a gold-painted tire into the ocean at the site to commemorate the start. It's unclear how much it cost to build the reef, but McAllister said his group raised several thousand dollars. The county also chipped in, and Goodyear donated equipment to bind and compress the tires.
A 1972 Goodyear news release proclaimed the reef would "provide a haven for fish and other aquatic species," and noted the "excellent properties of scrap tires as reef material."
"The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area," McAllister said. "It just didn't work that way. I look back now and see it was a bad idea."